Learn about Tarragon Essential Oil – Artemisia dracunculus

by Jade Shutes

Tarragon Essential Oil
Artemisia dracunculus L.

Other common names: Little Dragon, Mugwort (French), Dragon sage-wort, Dragon wormwood, Estragon, False tarragon

Botanical Family: Asteraceae syn. Compositae

Botany: Tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus L., is an aromatic, perennial herb whose distribution spans North America, eastern and central Europe, and most of temperate Asia. The specific epithet dracunculus (Latin meaning ‘little dragon’) is believed to describe its coiled, serpentine root and/or the shape of the leaves, which is reminiscent of a dragon’s tongue. (Obolskiy, et al. 2011)

There are two main ‘cultivars’ or ‘varieties’ of A. dracunculus L. known as French tarragon (A. dracunculus var. sativa) and Russian tarragon (A. dracunculus var. inodora). (Vienne et al., 1989) French tarragon has a cool, sweet, licorice-like aroma with slight bitter tones whereas Russian tarragon lacks the anise-like aroma and flavor and is more harsh in flavor. (Obolskiy et al. 2011)

French tarragon is prized for its fragrant leaves. Reaching a height of 0.7 to 1.2 meters, the plant is characterized by thin, erect stems, delicate, narrow, green leaves, greenish-white flowers, and rhizomatous growth. The plant is cultivated extensively in southern Europe, the United States, and several other countries. Most essential oil of tarragon in the US essential oil market is French tarragon.

History and myth

TarragonA. dracunculus is described in several well-recognized herbal reference texts from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Avicenna, Abu Mansur, and Ibn Baitar demonstrated its antipyretic and antifebrile effects as well as its ability to ‘clear the upper respiratory tract of phlegm and facilitate respiration.’ Tarragon was used in the Middle Ages in Armenia in malignant ulcers and as a juice (orally) during plague epidemics; in Europe it was used as a carminative, for stimulating the appetite, and for improving digestive processes, while an alcoholic tincture was used as a sedative and anticonvulsant in epilepsy and seizures (Aglarova et al, 2008).

A. dracunculus has a long history of use by Native Americans. The Chippewa used the root as a gynecological aid to reduce excessive flow during the menstrual cycle and to aid in difficult labor. The leaves were chewed for heart palpitations, and the root was used to make a bath for strengthening children and in steam baths for strengthening elders (Obolskiy et al, 2011).

Extraction information

Country of origin: France, Hungary, USA, Italy
Part of plant used: Flowering tops and leaves
Extraction method: Steam distillation
Oil yield: 0.15-3.1%
Color of oil: Clear to pale yellow

Blending information

Odor Description: Sweet-peppery, anise-licorice-like, sharp
Note: mid note
Blends well with: Clary sage, Neroli, Roman chamomile, Lavender, Peppermint, Bay Laurel, Petitgrain

Safety information

Tarragon is not recommended for internal use over an extended period of time due to estragole content.

Estragole syn. methyl chavicol occurs naturally in a variety of foods including tarragon (60-75% of essential oil), sweet basil (20-43% of essential oil), sweet fennel (5-20% of essential oil), anise (1% of essential oil), and star anise (5-6% of essential oil) (Council of Europe, 2000).

Estragole (C10H12O) has been the subject of interest due to studies that have shown estragole can be carinogenic when administered to mice at high dose levels. However, when used at low dose levels as a flavor, estragole was considered to be generally recognized as safe (GRAS) in 1965 by the Expert Panel of the Flavour and Extract Manufacturer’s Association (FEMA) and was approved by the US food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food use as a flavor. In 2002 the FEMA Expert Panel reviewed the safety of the use of Estragole as a flavour. They stated “In particular, rodent studies show that these events are minimal probably in the dose range of 1-10 mg/kg body weight, which is approximately 100-1000 times the anticipated human exposure to these substances. For these reasons it is concluded that present exposure to methyl eugenol and estragole resulting from consumption of food, mainly spices and added as such, does not pose a significant cancer risk. Nevertheless, further studies are needed to define both the nature and implications of the dose-response curve in rats at low levels of exposure to methyl eugenol and estragole.” (Smith et al, 2002). Thus reaffirming GRAS status for Estragole.

In the evaluation of the European Committee on Food the estimated intake of Estragole, calculated based on its proposed uses and use levels in various food categories, amounted to 0.07% mg/kg bw/day Estragole (EFSA 2001). The European Medicine Agency (EMA, 2005) also concluded that the present exposure to estragole resulting from consumption of herbal medicinal products (short time use in adults at recommended doses) does not pose a significant cancer risk.

Recently the European Union has updated existing legislation on flavorings in the light of technical and scientific developments. The resulting Regulation No 1334/2008, which shall apply from 20 January 2011, now bans the addition of estragole as such to food. For certain compound foods the Regulation establishes maximum levels for estragole resulting from the use of flavourings or food ingredients with flavouring properties, which naturally contain this substance (Table 2). The Regulation does not apply to raw foods and non-compound foods and mixtures such as, but not exclusively, fresh, dried or frozen spices and/or herbs, mixtures of tea and mixtures for infusion as such as long as they have not been used as food ingredients (European Union, 2008).

European maximum levels for estragole (1-allyl-4-methoxybenzene), naturally present in flavorings and food ingredients with flavouring properties, in certain compound foods as consumed to which flavorings and/or food ingredients with flavoring properties have been added.

Compound food in which the presence of estragole is restricted Maximum level (mg/kg):

  • Dairy products 50mg/kg
  • Processed fruits, vegetables (incl. mushrooms, fungi, roots, tubers, pulses and legumes), nuts and seeds 50mg/kg
  • Fish products 50
  • Non-alcoholic beverages 10

Regulation No 1334/2008 EU   Maximum allowable levels of estragol

According to the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), consideration needs to be made for differences between oral and dermal exposure. IFRA states: Furthermore, although no data exist on the skin metabolism of Estragole or related compounds there is evidence that many enzymatic processes, particularly oxidative ones, are much lower in the skin than in the liver (as cited in Bronaugh et al., 1995). Thus the relevance of reported tumours resulting from skin painting studies or subcutaneous injection (as cited in Miller et al., 1983) with putative genotoxic metabolites of estragole needs to be put into perspective. Although data indicate that the most potent metabolite for inducing skin tumours in rodents is the1′-hydroxy epoxide metabolite, characterization of dermal metabolism has not been established to show that the epoxide metabolites used in the skin painting and subcutaneous injection studies would be the metabolite of concern in either rat or mouse, nor has it been established that the level of exposure is relevant as it is unlikely that significant local tissue concentrations for metabolites would result from a realistic oral ingestion or dermal application of estragole. (IFRA Standard, 44th amendment, October 14, 2009)

IFRA recommends: The total concentration of estragole should not exceed the following limitations in the finished product:

  • Fine fragrance and Eau de Toilette: 0.2%
  • Other leave on and rinse-off cosmetic products: 0.01%
  • Non skin and non cosmetic products: 0.2%

Chemical composition

Chemical ‘varieties’ of Artemisia dracunculus have been identified in terms of the qualitative composition of the essential oil. Major components differ significantly depending on origin of the plant material.

  • Turkish A. dracunculus has been reported to contain cis-anethole (81.0%), cis-b-ocimene (6.5%), trans-b-ocimene (3.1%), limonene (3.1%) and methyl eugenol (1.8%) (Kordali et al, 2005).
  • Sayyah et al, (2004) reports the following chemistry of Artemisia dracunculus L. (Asteraceae): trans-anethole (21.1%), α-trans-ocimene (20.6%), limonene (12.4%), α-pinene (5.1%), allo ocimene (4.8%), methyl eugenol (2.2%), β-pinene (0.8%), α-terpinolene (0.5%), bornyl acetate (0.5%).
  • In Poland, the following substances dominated in the essential oil of A. dracunculus L.: elemicin (56.0%), sabinene (20.9%), methyleugenol (6.2%), and E-asarone (6.2%). (Zawioelak and Dzida, 2012)
  • In Cuba, elemicin (53.0%) and methyl eugenol (17.6%) were the major constituents of A. dracunculus (Pino et al, 1996).
  • According to Obolskiy et al (2011), methyl eugenol (up to 39%), estragole (up to 82%), elemicin (up to 57%), and terpinolene (up to 25%) are reported to be the prevalent constituents among various regional ‘varieties.’ They note that estragole tends to be the predominant trait of French tarragon essential oils and that harvesting time can affect concentration of this component.

Due to the potential for variation in chemical composition in Artemisia dracunculus essential oil, it is highly recommended that a full GC/MS report is provided to you before purchasing this essential oil. If you find that the company is selling a Tarragon essential oil rich in methyl eugenol, please consider the following safety information.

Safety note on methyl eugenol

  • Methyl eugenol, is closely related to estragole, otherwise known as methyl chavicol, the only difference being a second ring methoxy group in the former. Methyl eugenol is a potential liver carcinogen however hepatic tissue damage generally occurs at higher doses (>10mg/kg body weight) and must be recurrent, i.e. long-term administration of methyl eugenol is required (daily for > 3 months). In the short term (< three months) daily high doses of methyl eugenol (up to 300mg/kg body weight) can cause toxicity but not carcinogenicity.
  • Newborns are more at risk from the effects of methyl eugenol than adults and hence essential oils rich in this constituent should be avoided with this population.
  • However, Harris (2002) pointed out that that based upon dilutions utilized in aromatherapy “a client receiving aromatherapy treatments is at little, if any, risk of carcinogenesis from the use of essential oils containing moderate quantities of methyl eugenol.” He does however go on to say “those most at risk from methyl eugenol are the therapists themselves. Absorption of methyl eugenol by the therapist during massage is an unknown factor.” He recommends that a therapist avoid daily use of essential oils containing methyl eugenol.
  • Essential oils containing methyl eugenol should not be applied to the newborn or very young. If one is formulating product, Harris (2002) recommends adhering to IFRA guidelines.

These guidelines are as follows:
The Standard is based on long-term systemic effects and will therefore have a wider range of product type limitations as follows (IFRA Standard, 2009):

  • Fine fragrance: 0.02%
  • Eau de toilette: 0.008%
  • Fragrancing cream: 0.004%
  • Other leave on: 0.0004%
  • Rinse-off: 0.001%
  • Non-skin (as defined in the introduction to the Standards): 0.02%*
  • < Other non cosmetic products not covered above: 0.001%

Based on the lower end of the NOEL (The NOEL (no observable effect level) is the highest dose or exposure level of a poison that produces no noticeable toxic effect on animals.) and applying a 1000 times safety factor for systemic effects a daily dose for methyl eugenol of 60 μg/day is supported. Taking into account a dermal penetration factor of 40% leads to an acceptable dose of 150 μg/day. (micrograms per day)

Note: There is some suggestion of a difference in metabolism of methyl eugenol between humans and rodents. According to studies, no adverse human health effects have been associated with dietary consumption of methyl eugenol.

Final Statement regarding safety of Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) essential oil: Due to safety concerns regarding methyl eugenol and estragole (syn. Methyl chavicol), it seems prudent to follow IFRA guidelines regarding levels of concentration for products aimed for the general market. For dermal application, it is best used in acute situations and for short term use rather then daily application. Avoid application of tarragon essential oil for infants and young children. Internal use of Tarragon essential oil rich in methyl eugenol and/or estragole is not recommended. See safety information under respective chemical components.

Chemical feature

Based upon research for companies in the United States selling Tarragon essential oil, the vast majority are selling a A. dracunculus rich in methyl chavicol syn. estragole (Table 2). The remainder of this article shall be based upon A. dracunculus rich in methyl chavicol.

Chemical composition of Artemisia dracunculus L.

  • Monoterpenes:  a-pinene (1.07-1.15%), b-myrcene (0.18-0.2%), camphene (0.07%), b-pinene (0.15%), (e)-b-ocimene (8.02-10.13%), d-limonene (3.3-3.87%), trans-b-ocimene (10.26%), sabinene (0.09%), terpinolene (0.04%)
  • Aldehydes: anisaldehyde (0.37%)
  • Ketones: fenchone (0.94%)
  • Phenols: eugenol (0.24%)
  • Phenylpropanoids: methyl chavicol syn. estragole (73.55%)

**Chemistry from GC analysis for Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) from stillpointaromatics.com and aromaticsinternational.com

Research notes

According to Ponte et al (2012) estragole exhibits myorelaxant (as cited in Albuguerque et al,1981), anticonvulsant and anesthetic (as cited in Dallmeir and Carlini,1981), bradycardic (as cited in Siqueira et al, 2006), vasoactive (as cited in Soares et al, 2007) and antioxidative and antimicrobial properties (as cited in Shahat et al, 2011).

Therapeutic actions

Antibacterial (Raeisi et al, 2012), antispasmodic, antifungal (Meepagala et al, 2002 and Kordali. et al, 2005), anticonvulsant (Sayyah et al, 2004), sedative (Sayyah et al, 2004)

Core Aromatic Applications

Although tarragon essential oil has shown to have antibacterial and antifungal activity, the author of this profile has only used it for the following conditions.

  • Digestive system: stress related digestive upsets, colon spasm
  • Musculoskeletal system: muscle spasm or cramp, carpal tunnel syndrome, plantar fasciitis, muscular aches and pains
  • Nervous system: Anxiety, nervousness, and irritability
  • Reproductive: PMS, painful cramps

Note: Tarragon oil is a powerful intestinal, neuromuscular, and female reproductive system spasmolytic. Tarragon can also be used as a first-aid remedy for shock, until professional help becomes available (Schnaubelt, 1999).

Sample Formulations

Acute Premenstrual cramps

  • 1 ounce/30 ml Sesame (Sesamum indicum) oil
  • 10 drops Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)
  • 7 drops Clary sage (Salvia sclarea)
  • 7 drops Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)

Place essential oils into one ounce glass jar. Place cap on and shake. Reopen and add in sesame oil. Cap and shake again. Label. Oil is now ready to use. Massage a palmful of the oil onto abdomen as needed.

Nerve tonic inhaler

  • 10 drops Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)
  • 5 drops Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
  • 10 drops Petitgrain (Citrus aurantium var. amara)

Combine essential oils into small bowl. Place small organic cotton pad in bowl and saturate with essential oil synergy. Place cotton pad into blank inhaler tube and close tube. Label. Inhale as needed.


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