Oregano is a shrubby herb that grows upright or trailing, depending on the variety. It is native to the Mediterranean basin at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia. Oregano is its genus name; in Greek, it means “joy of the mountain”. Oregano thrives in a mountainous habitat of dry, rocky, limestone soil formed from shells and the decaying bones of sea creatures. The hotter and drier the climate, the stronger the aroma and flavor of the weed will be. It will also develop an abundant display of striking tubular flowers. Oregano has the strongest flavor profile of all Mediterranean herbs. Several species have become naturalized in North America.
From magic to medicine
The mythological Greek goddess Aphrodite created spicy and pungent oregano to signify joy, and she planted it in her garden on Mount Olympus. It was the herb of happiness from Greece, used in love potions and wedding rituals. Marjoram, a close relative of oregano, is associated with the corresponding Roman goddess, Venus, who cast a magic spell to give the herb a pleasant sweet scent.
The earliest evidence of oregano has been found in 4,000-year-old stone tablets from ancient Anatolia. The Greek physician Hippocrates prescribed oregano to relieve gastrointestinal disorders and to protect against respiratory ailments. Hot oregano tea with honey cures asthma and colds. Greco-Roman culture also adopted oregano as a food, which provided antioxidants and other health benefits.
Oregano plants have been used as natural remedies since antiquity. Ongoing scientific studies and rich historical evidence strongly support many traditional uses. The active compounds in their essential oils are known to possess antiviral, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties. Purdue University scientists recently announced research into an anti-cancer compound in oregano and thyme that can suppress the development of tumors.
Origanum rhymes with confusion!
Genre Oregano belongs to the Lamiaceae, or mint, family with 57 accepted species and nine subspecies. Extensive hybridization occurs between species, and many plants have multiple common names and synonyms, which are alternative scientific names.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) and marjoram (Origanum majorana) are closely related. Similar in appearance, their stories are deeply intertwined and it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the two. To complicate matters further, plants from entirely different families are called oregano and have similar flavor profiles.
It can be confusing for botanists, commercial growers, gardeners and cooks. One garden writer laments that the task of sorting them out is a “deeply tangled taxonomic thicket.” Oregano and marjoram are culinary twins with one notable difference – one is robust and fiery; the other is sweet and gentle.
A word about marjoram: introduced in 16e century in England, sweet marjoram became associated with the English cottage garden. It was widely grown as a potherb in colonial America. Thomas Jefferson requested it for his garden in 1794. Oregano is not listed in the 1943 printing of The pleasure of cooking, but marjoram is. The sweet herb was commonly included in American cookbooks until after World War II, when servicemen returned from the Mediterranean with an appetite for oregano and pizza. Oregano became everyone’s favorite herb, supplanting marjoram and sage – another colonial favorite.
O. vulgaris is the wild Mediterranean grass; its species epithet vulgar means “common”. It’s called oregano in the US, but wild marjoram in Britain. The flavor is not as nuanced as Greek oregano. The creeping rootstock is invasive. Eye-catching pink flowers attract pollinators and dry well for long-lasting flower arrangements. Commercial dried herb can be mixed with Turkish or Mexican oregano or marjoram. Herbal expert Dr. Arthur O. Tucker advises, “Think of oregano as a flavor rather than a genus or species.”
O.Vulgare subsp. hirtum (synonymous O.heracleoticum) is the real Greek oregano – the one that gives a special flavor to pizza and spaghetti sauces. It is essential in Greek and Italian cuisines. The large amount of essential oil contains carvacrol, a creosote-scented phenol that is one of the main aromatic components of oregano. The intense flavor of fresh grass demands restraint in the kitchen; too much can overpower a dish. Not as invasive as mint, it produces white flowers; its oil is a natural insect repellent.
Origanum x majoricum (Sicilian oregano or hardy sweet marjoram) is a hybrid of oregano (O. vulgaris) and sweet marjoram (O. majorana). It can overwinter in the Midlands in sunny, well-drained soil; seeds can germinate in sandy soil. The appealing aroma and slightly spicy bite will enhance any dish. One of the few oregano flavors used by perfumers, it offers warm notes of cardamom and nutmeg.
O. onitesalso called rigani (Greek), pot marjoram or Cretan oregano, is abundant in the Greek islands, especially Crete. It grows beautifully in terracotta pots, even indoors. A high essential oil content gives the herb a crisp, strong flavor; it is tasty even when the flower heads are forming. Butterflies love it too. Use in Greek, Turkish and Italian cuisines. McCormick Spices imports Turkish and Mexican oregano.
O. syriacum (O.maru or Egyptian marjoram) is an herb called za’atar in Middle Eastern regions with a taste like a mixture of oregano, marjoram and thyme. Syrian oregano is a key ingredient in Arabic seasoning also called za’atar. Scholars believe so is the biblical “hyssop” mentioned in the Old Testament. Add to soft cheese, salads, yogurt, flatbread, popcorn, herbal tea and spice pastes for roast meat and poultry.
Lippia graveolens is Mexican oregano or red brush lippie from the Verbenaceae family with lemon verbena. The weed offers citrus and floral notes; the aroma of oregano has undertones of licorice. Rich in flavonoids, it grows in Mexico and the American Southwest. It is added to earthy chili powder seasoning for Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes. Mix equal parts dried Mexican oregano, paprika, garlic powder and ground cumin; spice it up with cayenne pepper.
O. vulgaris ‘Hot & Spicy’ is bred to be very spicy. Add to Mexican foods and other robust dishes. Use half the amount of this oregano unless you prefer a tangy flavor.
Dittany of Crete
O. dictamnus, or hop marjoram, has soft, downy leaves and likes to grow in rockeries and hanging baskets. The ancient herb is known to have important medical properties; Aristotle was a fan. It is also used to flavor vermouth. The grass grows well in the Midlands and is best harvested just before flowering. The leaves have a mild oregano flavor; to use in cooking or for a restorative tea.
O. majorana (marjoram with knots) is the tender and fragrant species that is true marjoram. Native to cypress and Turkey, the herb is grown all over the world. It shines in French Herbs of Provence. Sweet Marjoram has delicate citrus notes that complement fish, venison, German sausage and vegetables such as green beans, mushrooms and winter squash, fresh pasta, egg dishes, peaches and custards. It grows as an annual in the Midlands.
Birds of a feather…
Plants come together too! Oregano grasses make good companion plants. Beware of invasive species (O. vulgaris) who oust their ordained neighbours; continuous cutting controls growth. Tall grasses provide an attractive backdrop for low sprawling varieties. Ornamental grasses adorn gardens and flower bouquets, but some are bland in taste and therefore offer little culinary value. Oregano loves the sun; their aromas and flavors weaken if the soil is too rich and wet.
Buy plants from trusted sources. Propagate by root divisions from robust flavored plants. Stems can be rooted in water or moist potting soil. Great variation can be found in the aroma and flavor of different species, varieties and cultivars; let your nose guide you. Rub a leaf between your fingers, then decide if the scent appeals to you. Taste it if you can.
Dried or freeze-dried oregano and marjoram are more aromatic with deeper flavors. They hold up well to long cooking times. Americans tend to be hoarders of spices and herbs. For optimal flavor, replace dried herbs after two years, sooner if their aroma and flavor wear off. A lasting relationship with culinary herbs doesn’t mean skimming a 10-year-old supply.