Tropical Gardening Helpline: Growing tarragon in Hawaii

  • Mexican marigold mint has often been grown as a substitute for tarragon. (Courtesy / aggie-hortaculture.tamu.edu)
  • Russian tarragon leaves are narrower and spikier than those of the ‘true’ French tarragon. (Courtesy / plant-world-seeds.com)
  • The leaves of the French tarragon have an anise-licorice flavor that is highly prized among chefs. (Courtesy / tavistocknursery.com.au)

Donna asks: I am new to gardening in Hawaii but I had a lovely herb garden on the mainland. Tarragon was one of my favorites but I have heard that it does not grow here. If that is true, is there a tropical substitute?

Tropical Gardener Answer: According to my go-to herb specialist, Kari Hagerman, French tarragon is very difficult to grow successfully in our tropical climate. French tarragon, artemisia dracunculus, is a species of perennial herb in the sunflower family. The slight licorice taste and tongue tingle of French tarragon is unique and highly acclaimed in culinary circles. It has a purer tarragon flavor than other plants that are easier to grow in the tropics.

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According to Kari, who does grow and propagate French tarragon in her Waimea nursery, Pomaikai Plant Company, it can only be propagated by root division but the success rate is not high. The resulting plants stay relatively short. They usually grow to only 2 1/2 feet with smooth, spear shaped, glossy, dark green leaves that are both pungent and aromatic.

Kari often supplies Ace Hardware in Waimea with some of her organic French tarragon plugs. She will also have some to sell at the Kona Orchid Society’s annual Mother’s Day Plant Sale on Friday and Saturday, May 11-12 at the Old Airport Pavilion in Kailua-Kona. The sale runs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. If you have a cool, partly shady spot with good soil drainage, you might try growing those.

Though French tarragon is often referred to as “true tarragon” and has the purist flavor, several alternatives are available. These can be grown from seed and will grow better in our tropical climate.

Russian tarragon (artemisia dracunculoides named by Pursch) is in the same family of herbs as the French variety but has several differences. The Russian variety has leaves that are narrower and kind of spikey rather than the smooth-edged, glossy leaves of the French variety.

Though the Russian plant is reported to have a less pure tarragon flavor than the French one, it is a hardier and a more robust plant. Russian tarragon can grow to a height of about five feet and it does best in a sunny, warm, dry, location with well-drained soil. It produces branching stems of narrow pointed, aromatic leaves. In recipes calling for tarragon, it is good to know that the French tarragon is sweeter and lighter with a slight licorice or anise flavor, while Russian tarragon has a milder and slightly bitter flavor.

To use either of these tarragons, you simply cut the tops of the plants a few inches above the soil. They will regrow so that you can use the leaves several times during the growing season. They can be used fresh or dried.

Sweet mace or Mexican mint marigold (tagetes lucida) is another plant that can be used in recipes calling for tarragon.

This plant produces small, narrow, dark green leaves and many single yellow marigold blossoms. In warm climates, its anise-like smell and taste make it an adequate substitute for French tarragon. The standard Mexican tarragon plants grow to about 3 feet tall. They can thrive in hot, dry places in full sun. You can propagate this plant from seed as well as from root division.

Anise hyssop is another popular herb that offers that licorice-like flavor and might be used to replace tarragon in some cases.

If your garden is sunny and at a lower elevation, you might want to consider some of the easier to grow tarragon alternatives.

Email plant questions to konamg@ctahr.hawaii.edu for answers by Certified Master Gardeners. Some questions will be chosen for inclusion in this column.

Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living in a dryland forest north of Kailua-Kona.

Gardening Events

Saturday: “Work Day at Amy Greenwell Garden” from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Meet at the Garden Visitor Center across from the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook. Volunteers will be able to help with garden maintenance and are invited to bring a brown bag lunch. Water and snacks provided. Call Peter at 323-3318 for more information.

Farmer Direct Markets

Wednesday: “Hooulu Farmers Market” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Sheraton Kona Resort &Spa at Keauhou Bay

“Sunset Farmers Market” 2-6 p.m. in the HPM parking lot at 74-5511 Luhia Street in Kailua-Kona (across from Target)

Friday: “Pure Kona Market” 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Amy Greenwell Garden in Captain Cook

Saturday: “Keauhou Farmers Market” 8 a.m. to noon at Keauhou Shopping Center

“Kamuela Farmer’s Market” from 7 a.m. to noon at Pukalani Stables

“Waimea Town Market” from 7:30 a.m. to noon at the Parker School in central Waimea

“Waimea Homestead Farmers Market” from 7 a.m. to noon at the Waimea Middle and Elementary School Playground

Sunday: “Pure Kona Green Market” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Amy Greenwell Garden in Captain Cook

“Hamakua Harvest” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Highway 19 and Mamane Street in Honokaa

Plant Advice Lines

Anytime: konamg@ctahr.hawaii.edu

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