I am in love. Wild tarragon. It is the same species as the cultivated herb, but grows wild as a native species throughout much of the U.S. and Canada. I can’t believe I didn’t notice it sooner.
According to the USDA range map, wild tarragon is concentrated in the western United States—south to New Mexico and parts of Texas, west to the coast, and north into Canada—but it can be found as far east as Illinois and parts of New England. In Illinois it is considered endangered, and in Nebraska it is considered a weed.
Wild tarragon occurs from the plains to the mountains, according to Linda Kershaw (2000). With little searching to date I have found it from my town at 10,000 feet in Colorado’s high country down to 8,000 feet in Buena Vista on the Eastern Slope and Minturn on the Western Slope. In some places I have seen it growing sporadically in small colonies, but in others it is quite prolific. It is said to be very common in the Four Corners region.
Wild tarragon has long gone by the binomial Artemisia dracunculus, although our local taxonomists Weber and Wittmann accept the name Oligosporus dracunculus subs. glauca (Colorado Flora, 2012 ed.) The plant is frequent throughout Colorado. Despite the fact that it is a native species, it has a weedy nature, they write. There is another subspecies, dracunculinus, which has smaller heads and is found in Colorado’s southern counties.
To find wild tarragon, take a fresh look at the dry, open sites around you, or even that patch of tall weeds at the corner of your street. Look for it on open, dry, high country hillsides.
In late summer to early fall, you will see tall, sturdy stalks growing in clumps. When in flower, wild tarragon sports a dense cluster of many small, ball-shaped, yellow-drying-to-brownish flower heads at the top of the stalks. The leaves are green, alternate, generally unlobed, linear, and pointed, with smooth (not serrated) edges.
There is a lookalike species that grows across the street from me, another Artemisia-now-Oligosporus. This has similar flower clusters but instead of having simple, narrow leaves, each leaf of the lookalike features multiple, narrow lobes. Also, the scent is leafy and green without a hint of tarragon.
The wild tarragon I have been picking has a strong tarragon smell when I rub the leaves between my fingers, and the expected licorice-like flavor of tarragon. According to an account at www.swcoloradowildflowers.com, the aroma can range from scentless to definitively tarragon. I figure if it doesn’t smell like tarragon, you don’t want it for cooking anyway. Thus the scent can help as an identifier.
The first wild tarragon I found was in full flower. While there were still tarragon-scented, linear leaves to aid in identification, they weren’t as lush or potent as they were on another, younger specimen I found later in a neighbor’s mowed lawn.
I made wonderful tarragon vinegar with my wild-foraged bounty. Many authors recommend filling a sterilized jar with herbs and pouring warmed vinegar overtop, then letting the jar sit at room temperature in a dark place for 1-3 weeks. I did mine with cold vinegar and it still came out lovely after a week on the counter; henceforth I will probably store it in the refrigerator for good keep.
So far the tarragon vinegar has gone into two preparations. The first was a pork marinade with soy sauce, maple syrup, and tarragon vinegar. It was heavenly. Then I did a cocktail with elderflower liqueur, gooseberry juice, and a splash of tarragon vinegar. Whoa. Wild tarragon vinegar is very nice in a cocktail!
I look forward to trying my wild tarragon vinegar in salad dressing and béarnaise sauce—both suggestions from my dear friend Butter at Hunger&Thirst. I will eat tarragon leaves in salad and with steak. If you have other suggestions, please don’t hesitate to share. The fun with wild tarragon has only just begun.