Wild Tarragon (native status uncertain)

Artemisia dracunculus

bushes along trail

Wild tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) has been described as a “very unattractive weed of disturbed places,” but an unconstrained plant, with its long, arching, leafy branches, has its own stately grace.

Wild tarragon is the same species as the culinary herb French tarragon, but don’t expect the same spicy-anise fragrance or taste. French tarragon (which rarely blooms) is a variety that originated in Siberia and has benefited from years of artificial selection. In contrast, wild tarragon is bland, even unpleasant tasting.

Like other species of Artemisia (such as California sagebrush and Palmer’s sagewort), wild tarragon has a long history of medicinal use. It derives its name from early words for “dragon” because of its snake-like root system. Once it was thought to cure venomous bites.

Other Common Names:

tarragon, dragon sagewort, herbaceous sagewort, Pinon wormwood,

Description 4,11,59

Wild tarragon is a perennial herb that has been called “a very unattractive weed.”169 It has long slim arching stems up to 6 feet (1.5 m) in length, from a short rhizome.  Lateral branches are short and concentrated along the outer portions of the main stem. Leaves and stems are hairless with numerous resin glands depressed below the surface.  Unlike the cultivated form of tarragon, wild plants are usually only faintly scented, if scented at all, and their flavor is often unpleasant.

Leaves are green and linear to narrowly lanceolate and densely arrayed along the stem. The lower leaves reach three inches (7.5 cm) in length and are often cut into three short linear fingers near the end. Lower leaves die back in summer but may persist as brown shreds on the stem. Upper leaves decrease in length to 1/2 inch (1.2 cm) or less; they lack divisions and are tapered to a point at the ends. Margins of upper and lower leaves are generally smooth, occasionally with shallow lobes. All leaves are sessile or nearly so. Leaves extend out and downward from the stem, shaped like little ski-jumps. The long central stem, short lateral branches, and dense leaves give tarragon stems a green fuzzy appearance.

Flowers occur in elongated leafy compound clusters at the ends of the central stem and small, lateral branchlets. About a dozen small greenish-yellow inconspicuous flower heads nod from short pedicels.  Each flower head consists of 20 – 40 tiny pale yellow or cream disk florets from a rounded receptacle. Each floret consists of a narrow cylindrical corolla that expands to a lobed mouth less than 1/32 inch (about 0.5 mm) wide. A pappus is lacking.  Ray florets are absent. Peripheral florets lack stamens. The pistil consists of an inferior ovary and branched style about 1/8 inch (2 mm) long, extending beyond the corolla. The central disk flowers are functionally male or sterile. Five stamens are united by the anthers into a tube around a sterile pistil. Anthers may be fertile or sterile. The major bloom time is August through October.1

The dry fruits are small, and each contains one tiny elongate seed less than 1/16 inch (1 mm) in length. In spite of the lack of a pappus, the tiny seeds are wind-dispersed.59 Some forms of tarragon set few seeds, if any, reproducing vegetatively by rhizomes.41

close up of spiked stems
seed pod under microscope
plant with stems that have small white flowers on them

Distribution

Wild tarragon is a northern hemisphere plant with a circumglobal distribution.41 It is thought to have originated in Central Asia and Siberia. It may have been brought to Italy by the Mongols, who used it as a sleep aid and breath freshener and subsequently spread through the rest of Europe by transfer among monastery gardens.297 There is uncertainty as to whether it is native in the United States 2,7,67 or was introduced by Europeans and naturalized thereafter.4,301

Wild tarragon is widely distributed in California in a wide variety of habitats below 12,000 feet (3800 m). It frequents disturbed areas but  does not tolerate elevated salinity or alkalinity.7

In the Reserve, tarragon is frequently found along the south side trails, but rarely in the undisturbed sage scrub.

Classification 11,44,49,143

Wild tarragon is a dicot angiosperm in the sunflower family, the Asteraceae.2 This is the largest family of vascular plants in the Northern Hemisphere. “Flowers” of Asteraceae are made up of one or both of two types of flowers (florets): symmetrical disk florets and strapped-shaped ray florets. These are crowded onto a common base (receptacle), and together are often assumed to be a single flower, which we call a flower head. Other familiar Asteraceae that occur in the Reserve include bush sunflower (Encelia californica), goldenbush (Isocoma menziesii), and coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis).48

Species in the genus Artemisia have inconspicuous flower heads; ray florets are absent. The pappus is absent or minute.2 Other Artemisia species in the Reserve include California sagebrush (A. californica), Palmer’s sagewort (A. palmeri) and California mugwort (A. douglasiana).48

Wild tarragon is a highly variable species with many forms or phenotypes. The best known of these is French tarragon (A. dracunculus sativa), which is considered one of the four basic herbs of French cooking. French tarragon has been carefully cultivated for culinary purposes and rarely if ever sets seeds.41

Alternate Scientific Names:

Artemisia dracunculoides

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
close up of seed pods bunched together
tiny seed pods on branch
prickly branches on ground

Ecology 298

Numerous complex organic compounds have been identified within tarragon,41,297 as within many plants of the coastal sage scrub vegetation. These compounds cost the plant energy to produce and maintain, leading scientists to wonder about the benefits to the plant itself.

One such compound is artemisinin299 (a sesquiterpene lactone with an endoperoxide bridge) that is a potent anti-malarial drug. This compound has been examined from a variety of ecological aspects. A recent review concludes that the life cycle of artemisinin within the plant is most consistent with the protection of tender new growth from insect herbivores, while artemisinin accumulation and persistence in the surrounding soil suggests it may provide a chemical inhibition of potentially competing plants. It is likely that at some time, in some place one or both of these benefits were sufficient to promote the evolution of this unusual compound.

close up of stem with thin leaves on it

Human Uses

Tarragon has been cultivated for 600 years;300 the Greeks used it medicinally. and through the subsequent years, it has been used for intestinal problems, arthritis, toothaches, and hiccups.297,300 It continues to be a staple of aromatherapy and herbal medicine.297

Numerous uses for tarragon are listed for American Indians.282 Locally, the Luiseño harvested the seeds for food and made simple one-piece arrows from the stems. A tea was prepared from the leaves and used as a decongestant.17

A compound called artemisinin has recently become the most effective means to treat malaria. First isolated from Artemisia annua, artemisinin has also been found in significant quantities in the leaves of tarragon as well as several other species in that genus.299Some progress has been made synthesizing artemisinin outside the plant, but at present, field-grown plants provide the most reliable supply.

two stems with tiny white flowers covering them
small seed pods on branch

Interesting Facts

The common name, tarragon, may be a perturbation or combination of one of several words: the medieval Latin “tragonia,” the Byzantine Greek “tarchon,” the Arabic “tarkhon,” or a non-Arabic source, perhaps Greek “drakon,” all of which refer to an unpleasant beast or serpent.291 The scientific species name, dracunculus, comes from the Greek “draconis”, which means dragon, and “-unculus”, which indicates something little; together they indicate a little dragon.21 The theme is clear. The name is thought to refer to the serpentine shape of the roots. The plant was believed to cure the stings and bites of poisonous beasts and mad dogs.300,301

plant with dried out flowers on it
seed pods blooming tiny white flowers

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