610 Origanum vulgareCommon Names: oregano, wild marjoram, Greek oregano Family: Lamiaceae (mint Family)
Oregano is a bushy, semi-woody sub-shrub with upright or spreading stems and branches. Some varieties grow in moundlike mats, spreading by underground stems (called rhizomes), and others with a more upright habit. The aromatic leaves are oval-shaped, about 1.5 in (3.8 cm) long and usually pubescent (fuzzy). Throughout the summer oregano bears tiny purple tube-shaped flowers that are about 1/8 in (0.3 cm) long. These peek out from whorls of purplish-green leafy 1 in (2.5 cm) long bracts that resemble little pinecones. This is an extremely variable species with several subspecies and named cultivars grown for ornamental, culinary and medicinal uses. 'Aureum' has yellow leaves and pink flowers; 'Aureum Crispum' has curly yellow leaves; 'Thumble's Variety' grows in a low mound. 'Heiderose' is more upright growing to 2 or 3 ft (0.6-0.9 m) tall and has pink flowers. 'Compactum' is very low and wide spreading and rarely flowers. The wild form is upright, to 3 ft (0.9 m) tall.
Greek oregano, O. vulgare subsp. hirtum (a.k.a. O. heracleoticum), is the popular culinary herb. It has hairy leaves and bracts, and white flowers. O. vulgare 'Viride', with white flowers and green bracts, also is used as a culinary herb.
Italian oregano (Origanum X majoricum) is a hybrid resulting from crossing oregano and sweet marjoram (O. majorana), and combines the pungency of Greek oregano with the sweetness of marjoram.
Oregano, Origanum vulgare, is from the Mediterranean region of Europe and Asia. It has become naturalized in much of eastern US, where it is called wild marjoram. Greek oregano is from Greece and Turkey.
CultureGrow all of the oreganos in well drained, neutral to alkaline soil (pH 6-8). Light: Full sun. It is said that the pungency of oregano is directly related to the amount of sun it gets. Moisture: Water sparingly. Too much water will cause root rot. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 9. In cold climates, grow in a pot and bring indoors in winter. Propagation: Oregano is easy to grow from seeds but you can't be sure what you'll get that way. If you want real Greek oregano for the kitchen, use O. vulgare subsp. hirtum. Propagate it with cuttings or root divisions from a plant you like the smell or taste of. If you don't care about the flavor, plant seeds but don't cover them - they germinate better in light.
Use a low, spreading variety of oregano as an edge in borders and around the herb garden. Oregano does great in a hanging basket.
Greek oregano should be pinched back to encourage branching, and dug up and divided every 2 or 3 years as it becomes woody and less productive. Flavor is at its best after the buds have formed but just before the flowers open.
Oregano, like other herbs, loses its distinctive flavor during cooking as the volatile oils evaporate, so always add it in the last few minutes. Use oregano in salads, casseroles, soups, sauces and poultry dishes. And, of course, pizzas! Dried oregano has a stronger flavor and goes especially well with tomatoes and rice dishes.
The dried flower bracts are used in arrangements.
Ancient Mediterranean people used oregano as a meat preservative. Hippocrates, in the 5th century BC, prescribed oregano for curing various diseases, including stomach pain and respiratory diseases. Oregano is still used in modern herbal remedies for many ailments, but there is no clinical evidence supporting its efficacy. I grow sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana - indispensable!), thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis), and I have a beautiful, spreading mound of oregano in my garden that I started from a plant I got at the local nursery. It has all the flavor of lawn clippings. (Obviously, it's not the true Greek oregano.) When I need the flavor of oregano, I take a few leaves from a nearby spotted bee-balm (Monarda punctata), which tastes more like oregano than most oreganos!
Steve Christman 12/18/99; updated 5/7/03