January grey is here,
Like a sexton by her grave;
February bears the bier,
March with grief doth howl and rave,
And April weeps - but O ye hours!
Follow with May's fairest flowers.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
And so the new year begins, with January and its vagaries of weather. The whole country seems in a grip of bone-chilling cold, preceeded and/or followed by periods of unseasonable warmth. While I don't miss the snow and all the trouble it brings, I do worry about the lack of a good blanket of the white stuff for my plants. Right now, I am looking forward to planting seeds again, and beginning a new year of gardening challenges.
I'm excited about the Herb of the Year(TM) for 2014. Instead of a single herb, the herb for this year is the genus artemisia, which encompasses a wide variety of species. From wormwood to mugwort to tarragon, there is a whole interesting array of plants to explore. My own foray into the world of herbs began with an herb class and subsequent workshop on wreath making with artemisia. It has come full circle for me, in that the teacher I had for that class has now become a member of the New England Unit of The Herb Society of America, of which I currently serve as Chair. How's that for a gardening connection?
Tarragon, Artemisia sativa, is the one artemisia that has good flavor and is used for culinary purposes. The anise/licorice flavor is sharp and strong, and holds up to cooking. It is a great herb to use with chicken or fish, and it makes a superb flavored vinegar. It's one of the first vinegars I ever made, and very easy. Simply take a handful or two of the fresh herb and place in a wide mouthed jar. Pour a good quality white wine vinegar to cover the herb and seal. Place in a warm spot and let sit for two to three weeks. If you remember, you can give it a shake every day or so. Check the taste after the steeping period, and if it is flavorful, you can then strain out the herb and re-bottle into a container that is more suitable for pouring (look for fancy bottles at thrift stores). If you wish, you can add a fresh sprig of tarragon at this point, just for a decorative effect.
Tarragon is fairly easy to grow in the Northeast. It does not tolerate wet soil, so be sure it has good drainage (raised beds are good for this). It likes full sun, but I have found that it does well for me in a spot that gets afternoon shade. You must buy tarragon plants. True French tarragon is propogated by cuttings, as the plant is sterile and does not set seed. Any seed sold as tarragon is most likely Russian tarragon, which is inferior in flavor to French tarragon.
If you happen to live in the deep south, I'm afraid you can't grow tarragon. A substitute is Mexican tarragon, or Tagetes lucida. This is a species of marigold whose leaves have a flavor reminiscent of tarragon.
I'll be growing several unusual varieites of artemisia this year, in honor of its status as Herb of the Year(TM). A. genipi, A. princeps, A. scoparia, A. stelleriana, A. valesciaca are a few that I am trying to grow and if you are interested, let me know and I'll report on my success or failure with germination. Trying something new is always intriguing and hopefully fruitful.