Gardening with the Little Dragon

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Where I live in the west of France I am literally a stone’s throw away from the famous pilgrim route the SaintJacques-de-Compostelle.

This is probably the most famous pilgrim route in the world along which pilgrims have walked for hundreds of years. There is not just one route but rather a series of routes leading from different parts of Europe but all terminating in Santiago in the north of Spain where in 813 AD a shepherd is said to have been led by a bright light to the burial site of the apostle James.

The five hundred years between the 11th and 16th centuries were know as the golden age of pilgrimage when as many as one in five people would have been either walking to Spain or serving the pilgrim trade in some way. Many of those walking the pilgrim routes would have had leaves of tarragon (Artemisia dracunulus) tucked into their shoes as this herb was reputed to reduce fatigue and as a result was popular with foot weary pilgrims.

Tarragon is thought to have originated in Siberia and Mongolia. It arrived in France when the Moors conquered vast tracks of this country and soon became very popular here as a culinary herb known locally as estragon. It is still widely used by French cooks and is known as one of the four “fine herbs” along with chervil, parsley and chives. It is a crucial ingredient in sauce Béarnaise but also goes well with chicken. As is so often the case, cooking and gardening go hand in hand in this country and it is rare for me to write on one subject without touching on the other.

The Latin name dracunulus is derived from the word little dragon and this herb was once thought to heal bites from both snakes and rabid dogs. It is an easy to grow herb that is regarded as a very good companion plant with most other herbs. Like many herbs of southern Europe it appreciates a well drained soil and full sun. The seed is nearly always sterile and it is normally grown by division or root cuttings. This means that it is likely that all plants found here in France stem from original ancestors once carried by the Mongolians.

It is possible to obtain both Mexican and Russian tarragon but neither of these plants are as highly esteemed by chefs as true French tarragon so it is worth inquiring from your local nursery before making a purchase.

In the English speaking countries, tarragon remains less well known than it is in France where its aniseed flavor is highly esteemed. Though I would recommend it as an addition to any herb garden I would shy away from using it to treat snake and rabid dog bites.

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