Really? You can grow tarragon in Texas? Well, not quite. Texas tarragon (Tagetes lucida) is a Texas Smartscape superstar plant that adds tarragon-like flavor to food and drinks. Unlike the temperamental French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), which is challenging to grow in Texas because it does not like our hot summers or our humidity, Texas tarragon thrives in Texas and comes back in the spring even after unprecedented cold temperatures, such as those we experienced in Feb-ruary 2021. In addition to its culinary uses, its autumn marigold-like flowers attract bees and butterflies, making it an all-around winner as an addition to your landscape, herb bed or patio-container garden.
Tagetes lucida is sold under many names, including Texas tarragon, Mexican tarragon, mint marigold, Mexican mint marigold, sweet-scented marigold, false tarragon and yerba anise. It is an herbaceous plant with semi-woody stems, nar-row green leaves and yellow flowers in the fall. Native to the Southwest United States, Central and South America, it has been used by native cultures for seasoning, tea-making and medicinally for more than a thousand years. The genus Ta-getes is used synonymously with marigold and includes more than 50 plant varieties. The species name, lucida, means “light” or “shining” in Latin.
“Mexican tarragon’s use has been traced back to the Aztec culture in Guatemala. It was used to add peppery warmth to a cocoa beverage called chocolatl, as a good-luck charm for safe passage across waterways, and to ward off demons while harvesting maize. The whole plant was also used to treat gastrointestinal problems and colds.” (Michelle Davis, UCCE Master Gardeners)
According to the Herb Society of America, a medicinal powder made from the plant was blown into the face of victims to relieve their anxiety before they were ceremonially sacrificed. Historically, Texas tarragon is linked to the Aztec rain god Tlaloc and is still used in some locations to encourage successful growth in agricultural fields.
Grow Texas Tarragon
Texas tarragon may be grown from seed or transplant. If you only need a few plants, transplants provide more control over the placement and assure plant viability. It prefers full sun but can tolerate a bit of shade. Texas tarragon is a peren-nial in most of Texas, attaining a height and circumference of 18 to 24 inches. It may spread or reseed somewhat as it gets older, but the babies are easily removed and can be planted elsewhere or shared with friends.
Texas tarragon prefers friable, slightly acidic soil with lots of organic material and good drainage. However, it is not too picky if the soil does not stay soggy. Add transplants in the spring when there is no longer any danger from frost. Space plants three feet apart to allow room for growth and air circulation. Keep the soil moist for the first week to 10 days until the roots become established. If starting from seed, the seedlings should emerge within two to three weeks.
Once established, Texas tarragon requires little extra fertilization, although it might appreciate a little nitrogen added to the soil in the spring. The plant is drought tolerant, though it needs some supplemental water during the summer heat. Be sure to water at ground level and not on the leaves, or water in the morning to give the leaves time to dry.
Texas tarragon is rarely bothered by insects or diseases. Although the plant will die to the ground after a hard freeze, refreshing the mulch around the plant in the fall will protect its roots for growth the following spring. You may clean up the dead stems by cutting them close to the ground in late winter. Even if your plant does not suffer a bad freeze, cutting it back encourages the new growth that will emerge in the spring. Late winter is also a good time to divide your plant by using a sharp-shooter spade.
When integrating some Texas tarragon plants into your landscape beds, consider mixing them with fall aster or Mexi-can bush sage plants. The yellow flowers of the Texas tarragon and the flower colors of purple aster and sage are opposite or complementary on the color wheel, making each color appear more vibrant and helping to attract pollinators to your plants. If garden space is limited, Texas tarragon will grow well in a container that accommodates its size. Remember, con-tainer-grown plants need more frequent watering than those planted in the ground.
UsING Texas Tarragon
With its light licorice or anise-like flavor and aroma, Texas tarragon enhances many meat, fish and vegetable dishes. Although described as tasting like French tarragon, some connoisseurs believe that the anise flavor is somewhat stronger. You be the judge.
Begin harvesting Texas tarragon when the stalks are about six-inches tall. Harvesting will also encourage new growth. For the best flavor, select relatively young shoots. After washing and patting dry, leaves are removed easily by holding onto the top of the shoot and gently pulling down against the direction of growth. When creating herb vinegar or flavor-ing a brine, whole leaves may be used because they will be removed before eating. However, whole leaves should be finely minced before adding to a salad or cooked vegetables. Texas tarragon rapidly loses flavor when heated, so it is best to add it at the end of cooking or sprinkled on just
Some of my favorite ways to use Texas tarragon are herb vinegar, mixed with tuna and mayonnaise for a sandwich, homemade green goddess salad dressing, and as a flavoring for baked deboned chicken breast (see included recipes).
To make herb vinegar, you need at least a cup of herb leaves to two cups of vinegar. Choose a high-quality vinegar, such as white wine, rice or Champaign. Do not use the overly harsh distilled vinegar or the strong-tasting balsamic vinegar. Place in a sealed container. Allow the herbs and vinegar to set in a dark location and shake the container every couple of days. After a week to 10 days, taste it to determine if the herb taste is strong enough. If not, continue steeping and check again after another five to seven days.
When the taste meets your expectations, remove the herbs, strain out any residual plant material and store in an air-tight container in a cool place located away from direct sunlight. Your herb vinegar should be good for about six months. If you wish, you may add a fresh herb sprig for appearance. This looks especially attractive when using the herb vinegar as a gift.
I hope you have been persuaded to give Texas tarragon a try. The plant is a winning trifecta with impeccable culinary, landscaping and pollinator credentials. tg
Green goddess dressing
1 cup curly-leafed parsley
1 cup baby-spinach leaves, stemmed
3 tbsp Texas tarragon
3 tbsp chives
1 garlic clove
2 anchovy fillets or 1 tablespoon anchovy paste
3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp high-quality vinegar
1/2 cup light-flavored oil (such as canola or grapeseed)
1/2 cup mayonnaise
Salt and pepper to taste
Mince the first six ingredients in a food processor. Add remaining ingredients and blend until a smooth consistency is achieved. Chill and serve.
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tbsp oil (choose a moderate to high smoke-point oil such as sesame, corn or canola)
1/3 to 1/2 cup all-purpose flour for coating chicken
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1 shallot, minced
4 cloves garlic
3 tbsp fresh Texas tarragon minced
1 cup chicken broth
1-1/2 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 lemon zested
1 tbsp cornstarch
kosher salt & fresh-ground black pepper to taste
Using a meat mallet, pound the chicken breasts to a uniform thickness. This is best done by covering the breast with plas-tic wrap or placing in a Ziplock bag before pounding. Then season each piece with salt and pepper, and dredge in a bowl of flour to lightly coat.
Mince the shallot, garlic and Texas tarragon. Then reserve about half of the mixture to sprinkle on the cooked chicken before serving.
Preheat oven to 400° F.
Add oil to a 10- to 12-inch skillet, preferably cast iron. Heat over medium-high until the oil shimmers. Sear each breast until the outside has a slight char. You are not trying to fully cook the chicken, just getting the outside crisp. Place the chick-en on a plate to rest.
Lower the heat to low-medium, add white wine and deglaze the skillet. Once the liquid has reduced by half, add the butter, garlic, shallot and fresh tarragon. Sauté for 3–4 minutes until butter has melted and shallots are translucent.
Add the chicken broth, mustard and lemon zest, whisk together until combined. Then add cornstarch and whisk. Heat on low-medium until thickened. Return chicken breasts to pan and place in the oven for about 15 minutes until the internal temperature reaches 165° F.
Place chicken breasts on a serving platter, add approximately 1 tbsp of sauce over each breast and sprinkle with re-served herb mixture. Serve with wild rice and fresh, cooked garden vegetables.
By Barbara Brown