Origanum, the botanical name of the oregano family, contains 45 species and six sub-species of perennials and sub-shrubs. They are native to the mountains of the Mediterranean and Near East. Ancient Greeks called the herb “oros ganos” meaning joy of the mountain. Legend has it that Aphrodite created its fragrance as a symbol of happiness. It was used to make crowns for bridal couples and placed on graves to give peace to the departed.
Long used in traditional medicine, oregano was thought to be an antidote to poisons. The Egyptians used oregano oil both as a disinfectant and a preservative. It does contain thymol and carvacrol, powerful anti-microbial agents, so it may be a foil for food poisoning.
The world’s leading exporter of oregano is Turkey. The Turks export about 20 tons of it every year but consume a thousand tons domestically! They love oregano tea and use the oil
to sooth aching joints and muscles.
Origanum vulgare hirtum is the culinary herb we call Greek oregano. Like most members of Club Med, oregano must have excellent drainage. It is not fussy about soil but will have stronger flavor if grown in compost-enriched soil. Space the plants 12 to 18 inches apart. The plant blooms from midsummer to fall. It is best propagated from cuttings of the best-tasting plants rather than from seed. Cultivars with ornamental foliage do not pack the flavor punch of the green varieties.
Origanum marjorana, marjoram, is a botanical cousin of oregano and grown in the same way. It tastes sweeter than oregano. While preparing this article, I went shopping for a marjoram plant. It was hard to find and there were only two left. After purchasing one, I put it in the bed containing my flourishing oregano and I hope to do a taste test later this summer. I think the flavor of fresh oregano is far superior to dried. Occasionally, I make mini-pizzas and let the grandkids top their own. Garden-fresh oregano leaves are big hit with all of them.
Though rarely seen, there are ornamental members of the oregano tribe. They are very unusual looking and need just the right situation to provide the wow factor. The plants are small, about eight inches tall and wide. Though they have aromatic foliage, it is flowers that seal the deal. These are produced along pendulous modified leaf structures called bracts. I once had some growing over a retaining wall, but a pot would work as well. Kent Beauty and Barbara Tingey are two I have seen in mail sources this year. I would love to find Dittany of Crete (a.k.a. hop marjoram) for the name alone.
I love oregano as a long-lived, problem-free herb which is so much more delicious fresh from the garden than from the spice counter. I have seen quite a few for sale in garden centers this year.
If you see marjoram, snap it up as it is a rare find.
Master gardener Ann Bartlett likes to spice up the ornamental beds around her home with a few herbs.