Thomas Jefferson first encounted tarragon while in Paris. When he returned to the U.S., he found it hard to find. He made several inquiries to locate seeds, but seeds were scarce since plants used for cooking and vinegar rarely made seeds. People propagated it from cuttings and root division. In 1806, Philadelphia nurseryman Bernard McMahon sent a shipment of roots on April 30th. He also requested roots from McMahon in 1809, as well.
He planted it in the bed at the Northwest border on April 12th, but they "failed." In 1812, he transplanted it in Square XVII of the garden. He also documented the planting of tarragon in 1813 and in 1814.
The species Artemisia dracunculus was in English gardens since the sixteenth century and in American gardens before the Revolution.
French Tarragon is a hardy perennial herb with edible, aromatic foliage. Its popularity with Jefferson most likely comes from the fact that this herb is essential in French cuisine like Bearnaise sauce, vinegars, and in fish and chicken dishes. An example of this popularity is Jefferson's vinaigre d'estragon where three pints of vinegar was added to one quart of partially dried tarragon leaves. After one week, it was strained, bottled, and corked.
1793 March 10. (Jefferson to J.P.P. Derieux). "The estragon (called in English Tarragon) is little known in America."
1805 October 12. (Jefferson to J.P. Reibelt). "there is a garden plant in France which I have never been able to get, the Estragon. perhaps Mr. Labullage could furnish me a little of the seed."
1806 April 25. (Jefferson to Bernard McMahon). "TH:J has been many years endeavoring to get some seed of the Tarragon, but without success."
1806 April 30. (Bernard McMahon to Jefferson). "It gives me much pleasure to have it in my power to send you a few roots of the Artemisia Dracunculus, or Tarragon, these I forwarded by yesterday's mail and hope you will receive them in good condition; they propogate very freely and abundantly by the roots, and are perfectly hardy, requiring no additional care or protection in winter."
1806 July 12. (Bernard McMahon to Jefferson). "I am desirous to know if the Tarragon plants have succeeded, as, if necessary, I will send you a further supply."
1807 December 22. (Jefferson to J.P. Reibelt). "Your favor of Oct. 25 with the seed of the wild Estrangon came to hand last night for which I now return you my thanks."
1809 January 17. (Bernard McMahon to Jefferson). "I wish to know if the Tattagon roots I sent you have succeeded as I can send you a supply in due time this season if they failed."
1809 October 11. (Jefferson to William Thornton). "the tarragon you were so kind as to send me is now growing with the former bunch..."
1812 June 1. (Jefferson to J. Peter Derieux). "Your favor of May st is just received, with the seed & root of the Tarragon, for which I return my thanks. the root had become entirley dry and without any principle of vegetation left in it. this was less important, as I had some years ago succeeded in obtaining the plant from N. Orleans where it grows wild."
↑ This section is based on a Center for Historic Plants Information Sheet and Peter Hatch, "Herbs," Monticello Research Report, 2-3.