It took me a while to begin to appreciate the sheer beauty of the Mexican tarragon in my garden. Then I learned almost by accident what a delicious iced tea it makes, and from there I discovered its huge array of potential uses in the kitchen, the medicine cabinet, and the garden.
I’m so glad I started learning more about Mexican tarragon. Here’s what I’ve discovered so far.
Many names – and other “tarragons”
Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucid), is a perennial culinary herb native to Central and South America. It’s in the family Asteraceae, which is also sometimes referred to as Compositae.
Lucid in the scientific name of this plant comes from lucida, from the Latin adjective lūcidus which means “bright, shining,” and that’s a very fitting name for this beautiful plant. When it’s in flower, on a sunny day the whole plant seems to glow.
It has a long string of common names besides Mexican tarragon, which include but are not limited to: sweet mace, winter tarragon, cloud plant, sweet or sweet-scented marigold, Santa maria, African marigold, Mexican or Mexican-mint marigold, Texas tarragon.
There are several plants with the common name of tarragon. Two others I’m aware of are Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides), and French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus).
(Common names can be misleading; always be sure about the scientific name–the fancy two-word name in brackets and/or italics after the common name–of any plant you intend to ingest or use for medicine!)
And yes, that’s the French tarragon that’s famous in French cuisine; Mexican tarragon can be used in lieu of French tarragon. So if you live in the tropics and can’t grow the fancy French stuff – Mexican tarragon to the rescue.
Mexican tarragon produces woody stems that, once taller than about 70cm, will sprawl across the ground and will root along the length of the stem where it touches the ground.
The leaves are narrow, medium green, and when bruised have a distinct aniseed scent and flavour which I find delicious, but which may be off-putting if you’re not an aniseed fan.
It produces clusters of gorgeous bright golden yellow flowers throughout the warmer months.
Mexican tarragon needs partial to full sun, good drainage, and can grow in soils from mildly acid to mildly alkaline. It likes lots of organic matter, but since it originates in dry, rocky conditions, I expect it would be tolerant of neglect and poor soils.
You can propagate Mexican tarragon by division, from cuttings, or best of all by cutting off a long woody stem that has rooted along its length and transplanting that to the new position.
It does produce a viable seed which you can buy online (make sure you check the scientific name!) but if you have access to the plant, division or stem cuttings are super easy and would be much faster.
It thrives in heat and may die back in colder weather. If you get frosts where you live I’d suggest taking some inside for the winter. But I’d bet that if it were well mulched and protected, it would come back after mild frost.
My recent interest in Mexican tarragon came about when I added a few fresh leaves experimentally to ginger tea, sweetened with stevia, which we then chilled and drank cold. It was delicious.
Chilled ginger and tarragon tea
(Amounts are very approximate; adjust as you like. If your people don’t like ginger or don’t like tarragon, either ingredient can be omitted. If you omit the ginger, you may not need the stevia.)
1 teaspoon of grated frozen or fresh ginger (or a smaller amount of dried ginger powder)
¼ teaspoon of dry stevia leaf powder (or use fresh or frozen leaves; you’ll have to experiment to find the right quantity)
a few fresh Mexican tarragon leaves or a pinch of frozen leaves (a few leaves go a long way!)
a small pinch of salt (optional; I first put this in because I was wanting this iced tea to help sweaty people replenish electrolytes during very hot weather, then I decided I liked it and left it in there)
500ml boiling water
Let that sit ‘till it’s cool, then add cold water to make about 2 litres and enjoy. Very refreshing in hot weather.
Tarragon flavoured pancakes
So far, the only other culinary use I’ve put tarragon to was when I froze some fresh leaves and then added that to morning pancakes recently. The freezing made it mushy and spreadable, and released the flavour. With yogurt and a squeeze of honey on a pancake: yum.
If you’re into French cuisine, according to the recipes on the internet, Mexican tarragon can be used sparingly as a substitute for French tarragon in any recipe (use less; the flavour is stronger).
It would make a great herb vinegar: loosely pack a glass jar or bottle with chopped fresh leaves and cover with vinegar. Leave for 6 weeks and then use with or without straining out the plant material. Use a non-metal lid, or put a piece of waxed paper between lid and vinegar. (Herbal vinegars made this way, with lots of plant material and a long extraction time, are not just condiments. They are nutritive and safely medicinal; read more here.)
You could also add the leaves, chopped fresh or frozen, to salads, fruit salads, or deserts.
(Freezing breaks the rigid plant cell wall so your people won’t have to chew to get the flavour and aroma; it also makes the nutrition in the plant cells much more readily available to our digestive systems.)
The list of medicinal and also shamanic uses I found online for Mexican tarragon is long and varied. I found mention of its use for things as diverse as:
for colds and headaches,
for digestive tract ailments,
a malaria remedy,
a sedative/tranquilizer and conversely as a stimulant,
a ritual incense,
a dream enhancer, drank as a tea or smoked before bed,
and more; this is by no means a complete list…
It is a herb that’s been around for a long time and has deep cultural significance in its native areas.
Since I don’t know anything about any of these uses or have any experience with them, rather than try to be specific in this section I decided just to share a few references I found, and to encourage you to do your own research if any of this interests you.
Entheology.com: Preserving Shamanism’s Ancient Sacred Knowledge. (“Entheology” is from “entheogen,” which in this context is a plant that can help produce transcendent experiences and facilitate spiritual development; and “theology,” the study of religious faith, practice, and experience, or the study of God.)
Like other members of the marigold genus (indicated by the genus name “Tagetes” in the scientific name), Mexican tarragon is a useful companion plant in the garden. Secretions from its roots may help repel nematodes and may also have an effect against some persistent weeds such as couch grass. The growing plant also has a repellent effect on various insect pests.
The flowers have been used to make a yellow die.
And finally, the dried plant can be burnt as an incense and to repel insects.
I don’t remember how we came to have Mexican tarragon in our garden. In my memory it just seems to have showed up. It hung around for a while in an out-of-the-way spot, gradually expanding itself until I put it in a container to stop its spread.
Luckily I put it near a path where I’d notice it as I went past every day. Now I’m looking for other spots to add it to in the garden; it has become a favourite.
In another post soon, I’ll write about why actually I wonder if it was luck that had me put it near a path where I’d get to know it better… or something other than luck.
Meantime, I hope this has been useful. Thanks so much for reading!
References not mentioned in the text
Kate writes at ARealGreenLife.com about living a more meaningful, satisfying, sustainable life. She’s creating online workshops to help you ditch the supermarket bathroom aisle, starting with “Natural Oral Care and DIY Toothpaste.”