Russian tarragon is a perennial herb of the daisy family native to parts of southern and eastern Russia, Afghanistan, Mongolia, and western North America; it was introduced via cultivation in parts of Central Europe and North America.1 Known variously as Russian, Siberian, and wild tarragon, it is one of two reported cultivars in the species Artemisia dracunculus. The other is French tarragon, A. dracunculus ‘Sativa’.1,2 Russian tarragon is seed-fertile, has an odor described as balsamic and leathery, and rarely is used for cooking. French tarragon is seed-sterile, propagated by vegetative or clonal propagation, and is preferred for culinary use due to its flavor which is likened to anise (Pimpinella anisum, Apiaceae) or basil (Ocimum basilicum, Lamiaceae).1-3 Russian tarragon is described as having a distinctly bitter taste.4
The authors of this article have made their best effort to make sense of the literature on A. dracunculus and include only information they could positively identify as referring to “Russian” tarragon. However, as the author of one article on A. dracunculus stated, “…the existing literature lacks a common approach to the species’ taxonomic classification, with some authors classifying French tarragon and Russian tarragon as subspecies, varieties, or even species.”3 Synonyms for A. dracunculus include A. dracunculus f. redowskii hort, A. dracunculus ssp. dracunculoides, A. dracunculoides, and A. dracunculus var. dracunculus, among others. Additionally, there is a wide range of morphological and phytochemical variability within the species (cytotypes) dependent upon geographical origin of samples studied. Russian botanical textbooks reference six varieties of A. dracunculus throughout the former Soviet Union alone.3 Thus, a clear and complete understanding of the source material is difficult to guarantee. However, according to the USDA Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) classification, A. dracunculus is not separated into subspecies or varieties.4
HISTORY AND CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE
The genus name Artemisia may refer to the ancient deity Artemis Eileithyia, a Greek goddess of childbirth.5 Another interpretation suggests that it may refer to Queen Artemisia II of Caria (died ca. 350 BCE), the sister, wife, and successor of King Mausolus of Caria (a region of western Anatolia in modern-day Turkey), and a botanist in her own right.2,5 Another possible origin story refers to Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon, chastity, wilderness, and the hunt, who gave this plant to Chiron the Centaur, a great healer who then developed medicines from Artemisia.2,5 The specific name dracunculus means little dragon or snake and is thought to refer to the plant’s roots which resemble coiled serpents or, perhaps less likely, the resemblance of the leaf’s shape to a dragon’s tongue.1,3,5 Another explanation for the species name may come from a former use of tarragon as an antidote for snake bites.5 However, it might also be that tarragon was used for snake bites due to the species name and appearance of the roots, in accordance with the Doctrine of Signatures (the traditional practice of inferring a plant’s actions/uses based on its color and/or shape, or giving a plant a mnemonic name based on its known use).6 The common name tarragon may come from the Greek tarkhōn (or tarchōn), the Arabic ţarhūn (or tarkhūn), and/or the Latin tarchon, all terms referring to dragons.7
Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century herbalist and physician, mentions tarragon (Russian or French not specified) as being heating and drying, and its use as a remedy for urogenital issues, “the flux, or any preternatural discharge … and gently [promoting] the menses.”8 Johann Georg Noel Dragendorff, 19th century German pharmacist and chemist, in his 1898 treatise on medicinal plants, mentioned tarragon (Russian or French not specified) for its urogenital, anti-arthritic, and antiscorbutic (anti-scurvy) uses.3
Although Russian tarragon is not preferred for culinary use, it is eaten in Iran to stimulate appetite.9 It is also used as a digestive stimulant and to flush toxins from the body, for insomnia, to dull the taste of medicines, and to ease the pain of sores, cuts, and toothaches.3 Russian tarragon has been employed in Azerbaijan as an antispasmodic, laxative, and to treat epilepsy and intestinal gas. It also has been used topically in Russia and Central Asia for dermatitis, rashes, and wounds, and in India to treat fever and worms. Other traditional uses in the former Soviet Union include aiding digestion, nervous conditions, for liver and renal function, and as antibacterial, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory agents.3
In North America, where it naturalized, various Native American tribes employed Russian tarragon for myriad conditions. It was used internally for treating dysentery (root); colic (root); urinary problems (root); colds (cold infusion of root); as a stimulant (decoction of leaves and roots in bath); as an abortifacient (infusion of root or leaf and stalk); for excessive menstrual flow (root decoction); for difficult labor (whole plant decoction); heart palpitations (leaf and flower infusion or fresh leaf chewed); to make babies stronger (root decoction bath); to make the elderly stronger (root decoction steam); and as a general tonic (infusion of roots).10 Externally, Native Americans used the plant for, among other things, eye conditions (infusion of stems and leaves or poultice of leaves); for rheumatism (infusion of foliage, steam bath with leaves, or decoction of whole plant as a liniment); open sores (foliage, dried and powdered); headache (poultice of mashed, dampened leaves); diaper rash/raw skin (leaves); bruises (infusion or decoction of plant in bath); and hair growth (compound root decoction).10
CURRENT AUTHORIZED USES IN COSMETICS, FOODS, AND MEDICINES
In the United States, A. dracunculus, whether French or Russian, is classified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a spice, natural seasoning, or flavoring that is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for its intended use in food products. The essential oil and natural extractives are also listed as GRAS substances.11
There are also Russian tarragon-containing dietary supplement products in the US market, especially in the athletic performance enhancing category. For example, SLINshot™ (Purus Labs, Inc.; Dallas, TX) is labeled as containing 1,000 mg per serving (two capsules) of a dried aqueous extract of A. dracunculus L. var. inodora standardized to 0.2-0.7% flavonoids as 2-(3,4-dihydroxyphenyl)-5,7-dihydroxy-4-oxo-4H-chromen-3-yl D-galactopyranoside.12
In Canada, both A. dracunculus dried or fresh plant material, whether French or Russian, and the essential oil of A. dracunculus (tarragon oil) are classified as medicinal ingredients of licensed natural health products (NHPs) requiring pre-marketing authorization from the Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD) and manufacture in compliance with NHP GMPs. Tarragon oil additionally is permitted for use as a non-medicinal component of NHPs (at non-therapeutic levels) for functions including flavor enhancement, as a fragrance, and for skin-conditioning.13
At the time of this writing there were three licensed NHPs in Canada containing A. dracunculus as a medicinal ingredient including two athletic performance enhancing combination products, “Creatine Rt” powder (Peak Performance Products Inc.; Toronto, Ontario) and “Big C” capsules (Magnum Nutraceuticals Inc.; White Rock, British Columbia). Two licensed NHPs presently list tarragon oil as a non-medicinal ingredient.14
Similarly, in Australia there are listed medicines that contain extracts of A. dracunculus as an active ingredient with marketing authorization granted by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), including the athletic performance enhancing product “Creatine Plus Endura” powder (Health World Limited; Queensland).15
There are presently four A. dracunculus ingredients authorized for use in cosmetic products by the European Commission Health and Consumers Directorate. The essential oil of the whole herb is listed for perfuming and skin conditioning functions, the herb extract for perfuming function, the leaf and stem extract for masking function, and the root extract for skin conditioning function.16
As mentioned previously, different geographical origins of A. dracunculus samples result in morphological and phytochemical variability. In addition, as a polyploid taxon (i.e., having two complete sets of chromosomes), A. dracunculus cytotypes differ in external morphology, phytochemical constituents, anatomy, and fertility.3 Divergent phytochemical profiles suggest that standardization of plant material would be required in order to duplicate results in medicinal applications.
Most of the scientific data on A. dracunculus comes from either pharmacological or animal studies. However, a few small human studies have investigated Russian tarragon for its potential as an adjunct therapy in diabetes and athletic training.
Laboratory tests have confirmed that extracts, essential oil, and individual compounds of A. dracunculus have antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial, and antiplatelet activities, and may be useful in addressing metabolic syndrome.3,17-19 Much of the research has addressed the composition of its essential oil, which contains coumarins, flavonoids, and phenolic acids.3,18 While the essential oil of Russian tarragon can contain up to 30% methyl eugenol and very low levels of estragole — chemical constituents considered to be potentially harmful — neither ethanolic nor aqueous extracts contain such levels, making them safe alternatives in food and medicine.20
A 2011 randomized, double-blind, crossover study of 12 non-diabetic men investigated the effects of an aqueous extract of Russian tarragon (RT) on serum glucose and insulin in an oral glucose tolerance test.21 Participants visited a lab on two mornings separated by one to two weeks where they ingested either two grams of RT (dried aqueous extract standardized to 0.2% to 0.7% total flavonoids; Finzelberg GmbH & Co. KG; Andernach, Germany) or placebo. Blood was drawn before ingestion of RT or placebo and at 15, 30, 45, 60, and 75 minutes after ingesting the dextrose load. Participants taking RT displayed a non-statistically significant lowering of blood glucose and a slightly lower insulin response. The authors state that additional studies are needed with a larger sample of individuals with pre-diabetes and untreated diabetes.
In 2013, a poster presentation at the 10th Annual International Society of Sports Nutrition Conference and Expo addressed a very small randomized, double-blind study exploring the effect of A. dracunculus on resistance training adaptations.22 In the study, 12 resistance trainers (eight male, four female) consumed supplements for eight weeks of either six grams per day creatine plus 1100 mg per day A. dracunculus extract (no additional information provided) plus 40 grams per day collagen plus 0.38 grams per day fruit punch flavoring (Cr+RT, n=3), or 90 grams per day dextrose plus 0.38 grams per day fruit punch flavoring (PL, n=5), or 84 grams per day dextrose plus 6 grams per day creatine plus 0.38 grams per day for fruit punch flavoring (Cr+CHO, n=4). During the study, participants performed resistance training four days per week. After four weeks, the increases in lean body mass were significantly higher for the Cr+RT and Cr+CHO groups. Also, the Cr+RT group demonstrated average improvements in strength equal to or greater than the Cr+CHO group. The Cr+RT group also experienced decreased body fat by the end of the study whereas the other two groups had increases in body fat.
An earlier double-blind, randomized, crossover study in 2011 investigated whether taking short-term, low-dose aqueous RT extract prior to taking creatine monohydrate (CrM) influences whole body Cr retention, muscle Cr, or measures of anaerobic sprint performance.23 Ten recreationally trained males took 500 mg RT aqueous extract (Finzelberg; Andernach, Germany) or 500 mg placebo twice a day for five days prior to taking five grams CrM (Creapure®, AlzChem AG; Trostberg, Germany). This was repeated after a six-week washout period. At baseline and on each of the five days of supplementation, urine samples were taken and whole body Cr was estimated from samples. Muscle Cr content was determined by muscle biopsies. Additionally, participants performed two 30-second Wingate anaerobic capacity test before and after supplementation to determine peak power, mean power, and total work. No significant differences were observed between the two groups.
Another poster presentation in 2008 addressed the effect of RT on plasma creatine concentration when combined with CrM.24 Eleven healthy males were given 1000 mg (two 500 mg capsules) of as standardized extract of RT (Finzelberg; Andernach, Germany) or placebo, followed by a single dose of 60 mg/kg body weight CrM (Creapure®, AlzChem AG; Trostberg, Germany). Plasma creatine concentrations were analyzed over two hours following ingestion. The RT group experienced a significant reduction of plasma creatine levels at 60, 90, and 120 minutes compared to placebo. The authors state that RT is comparable to the influence of glucose and protein on plasma concentration, but that further research is needed to investigate the effects of RT on creatine uptake and retention in muscle.
Both French tarragon and Russian tarragon have been traditionally and widely used for culinary purposes as flavor components of food products and, to some extent, as fragrance components of cosmetic products. New research, particularly since 2004 with the development of proprietary branded Russian tarragon extract ingredients, is causing increased interest and market demand. New Russian tarragon-based products are entering markets as functional foods, dietary supplements, and/or licensed or listed medicinal products depending on the regulatory framework of the country where marketed.
Regarding the economics of Russian tarragon cultivation, a farmer’s ability to invest in specialized machinery is an important factor to consider. Smallholder farmers may need to consider sharing the costs and use of harvest and post-harvest processing equipment (e.g., cutter mowers, loader combines [harvesters], and/or combine harvesters [threshers]) with neighboring farms as well as drying facilities with band (belt) dryers, bin dryers, or deep-bed tray driers. The cost of plantlets grown from seed is about three to five euro cents each while planting stock from cuttings ranges from six to eight euro cents per piece. The yield, depending on the location and length of time after planting, ranges between 120 to 170 decitons (one deciton = 100 kg) fresh weight per hectare, of which 70 to 105 decitons are leaf material. The leaf yield in the second year is higher because more cuts are possible. The dry weight leaf yield falls between 16 to 23 decitons per hectare (1,600 to 2,400 kg) with a reported fresh-to-dry leaf ratio range of 4.6:1 to 6.7:1. A tarragon farmer can expect to spend 200 to 250 labor hours per hectare and a farm gate price for the dried herb between €1.10 to €2.30 per kg.5
—Gayle Engels and Josef Brinckmann
- Teuscher E. Tarragon. In: Medicinal Spices. A Handbook of Culinary Herbs, Spices, Spice Mixtures and their Essential Oils. Stuttgart: Medpharm Scientific Publishers; 2006.
- Tucker AO, DeBaggio T. The Encyclopedia of Herbs. Portland, OR: Timber Press; 2009.
- Obolskiy D, Pischel I, Feistel B, Glotov N, Heinrich M. Artemisia dracunculus L. (Tarragon): a critical review of its traditional use, chemical composition, pharmacology, and safety. J Agric Food Chem. 2011;59(21):11367-11384.
- Taxon: Artemisia dracunculus L. USDA Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN). Available at: www.ars-grin.gov/cgi-bin/npgs/html/tax_search.pl. Accessed April 28, 2014.
- Echim T, Lohwasser U, Teuscher E. Estragon (Artemisia dracunculus L.). In: Hoppe B, ed. Handbuch des Arznei- und Gewürzpflanzenbaus, Band 4. Bernberg, Germany: Verein für Arznei- und Gewürzpflanzen SALUPALNTA e.V;2012;386-398.
- Bennett BC. Doctrine of signatures: Through two millennia. HerbalGram. 2008;78:34-45.
- Tarragon. The Free Dictionary website. Available at: www.thefreedictionary.com/dragon%E2%80%99s+mugwort. Accessed April 18, 2014.
- Culpeper N. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. London, UK: Richard Evans; 1816.
- Grieve M. A Modern Herbal, vol. 2. New York, NY: Dover Books; 1971.
- Moerman D. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press; 1998.
- Food and Drug Administration. Substances Generally Recognized as Safe. In: Code of Federal Regulations (21CFR §182.10 and 21CFR §182.20). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office; 2013. Available at: www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2013-title21-vol3/pdf/CFR-2013-title21-vol3-part182.pdf. Accessed April 1, 2014.
- Purus Labs® SLINshot™ Supplement Facts. Available at: www.puruslabs.net/arsenal/slinshot. Accessed April 1, 2014.
- Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD). Natural Health Products Ingredients Database (NHPID). Ottawa, ON: Health Canada. Available at: http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/search-rechercheReq.do. Accessed: April 1, 2014.
- Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD). Licensed Natural Health Products Database (LNHPD). Ottawa, ON: Health Canada. Available at: http://webprod5.hc-sc.gc.ca/lnhpd-bdpsnh/index-eng.jsp. Accessed April 1, 2014.
- Australian Government, Department of Health, Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Artemisia dracunculus. In: Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG). Available at: www.ebs.tga.gov.au/. Accessed April 1, 2014.
- European Commission Health & Consumers Directorate. Cosmetic Ingredients and Substances (CosIng®) Database. Brussels, Belgium: European Commission. Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/consumers/cosmetics/cosing/. Accessed April 1, 2014.
- Chaleshtori RS, Rokni N, Razavilar V, Kopaei MR. The evaluation of the antibacterial and antioxidant activity of tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus L.) essential oil and its chemical composition. Jundishapur J Microbiol. November 2013;6(9):e7877.
- Miron TL, Gazi I, Plaza del Moral M. Romanian aromatic plants as sources of antioxidants. Innovation Romanian Food Biotechnology. March 2010;6:18-24.
- Cefalu WT, Ye J, Zuberi A, Ribnicky DM. Botanicals and the metabolic syndrome. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;87(suppl):481S-487S.
- Kauschka M, Burkard N, Pischel I, et al. Russian tarragon – a spice plant and its health potentials. NutraCos. July/August 2012;11(4):2-5.
- Bloomer RJ, Canale RE, Pischel I. Effect of an aqueous Russian tarragon extract on glucose tolerance in response to an oral dextrose load in non-diabetic men. Nutrition and Dietary Supplements. 2011;3:43-49.
- Parker AG, Steele T, Jäger R, Purpura M, Byars AG. The effects of creatine supplementation with and without an extract of Artemisia dracunculus on resistance training adaptations: preliminary findings. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013;10(Suppl 1):P21.
- Oliver JM, Jagim AR, Pischel I, et al. Effects of short-term ingestion of Russian tarragon prior to creatine monohydrate supplementation on whole body and muscle creatine retention and anaerobic sprint capacity: a preliminary investigation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014;11(1):1-8.
- Jäger R, Kendrick IP, Purpura M, Harris RC, Ribnicky DM, Pischel I. The effect of Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus L.) on the plasma creatine concentration with creatine monohydrate administration. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2008;5(suppl 1):P4.
- Ribnicky DM, Poulev A, O’Neal J, et al. Toxicological evaluation of the ethanolic extract of Artemisia dracunculus L. for use as a dietary supplement and in functional foods. Food Chem Toxicol. 2004;42:585-598.
- Ribnicky DM, Poulev A, Watford M, Cefalu WT, Raskin I. Antihyperglycemic activity of Tarralin™, an ethanolic extract of Artemisia dracunculus L. Phytomed. 2006;13:550-557.