Get To Know Oregano

Origins of Oregano.

The word “oregano” derives from the Greek oros {mountain or hill} and ganos {brightness or joy}, probably alluding to the plant’s bright beauty in its hillside habitat. In addition to oregano’s association with Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty, the herb is linked to the goddess Artemis, protector of childbirth. Artemis often was depicted wearing a crown of dittany of Crete {Origanum dictamnus} and ancient Greek women also wore the wreaths during labor.
But the plant’s medicinal value is more than an ancient fable. Studies show that oregano is highly antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal and antiviral. In The Green Pharmacy {Rodale, 1997}, ethnobotanist James Duke, Ph.D., says oregano also contains at least seven compounds that can lower blood pressure.
The Origanum genus includes two different flavor groups used for cooking; mild-flavored sweet marjoram and Italian oregano, as well as the more spicy and pungent-flavored Greek oregano, Turkish oregano and Syrian oregano.
The compound carvacrol contributes the sharp, pungent flavor associated with culinary oregano’s, as well as the plant’s antibacterial, anti-fungal and antimicrobial properties.

Cultivating Flavor:

oregano_leavesThe secret to attaining the full flavor potential of any Origanum in your garden is to provide growing conditions similar to its Mediterranean homeland.
In the wild, oregano grows in chalky soil on rocky south-facing hillsides that would stress most other plants. So in your garden, treat oregano as a rock garden herb with lower water requirements. To duplicate its preferred naturally chalky soil, add a little limestone to the soil or work it between the rocks where you intend to cultivate oregano. The soil should range from neutral to alkaline in pH {6.8 to 8.0} and be very well-drained – like the limestone outcrops where oregano naturally grows. Avoid heavy, poorly drained clay soils at all costs.
If you cannot provide these conditions in the garden, grow oregano in a pot. Remember that oregano has shallow roots, so you’ll need to water potted plants more often than those in the ground. Otherwise, this herb is practically carefree. Its leaves contain natural insecticides, so pests rarely are a problem.
Buy well-established oregano plants in pots. You can grow oregano from seed, but it’s difficult to do. {Of the thousands of Cypriot oregano seeds I sowed, only five grew and these plants lack the sweet, musky flavor of their parents.} Before you buy, pinch off a leaf and taste it. Oregano flavor can vary greatly from one plant to the next. If it tastes weak and grassy, take a pass – it probably will not taste any better once it’s established in your garden.
Oregano’s flavor also can change during the growing season. As a rule, the plant’s oils are more concentrated in summer, when its leaves are smaller and hairier, and lowest in fall. So plan to harvest your oregano in early summer, preferably right before the plant blooms. Once oregano flowers, the oils migrate to the top of the plant, which makes them better for perfumery or medicines because the oils are easier to recover. To harvest, cut back stems to no more than half their height so that the plant can recover easily.

Oregano in the Kitchen:

The easiest way to preserve oregano is to dry it. Spread the stems on paper towels atop cookie trays, then set the trays in a well-ventilated room away from direct sunlight. As soon as the leaves become brittle, put them in jars, seal tightly and store them away from light and heat.
Dried oregano is more concentrated in flavor than fresh {water in the leaves dilutes the oils}, so use it sparingly. Too much oregano can quickly overpower a dish and even cause vomiting, one of its many uses in ancient times. {A mild tea made with dried oregano, however, can help settle an upset stomach.}
Oregano’s original use in cookery was largely medicinal, due to its antimicrobial properties. Early cooks realized that oregano not only made good food taste better but also made it healthier. Clearchus of Soli, an ancient writer from Cyprus, once remarked that when dry salt fish begins to spoil, a large quantity of marjoram would correct the problem.
The ancient Greek physician Dioscorides commented on the health benefits of combining oregano with onions or sumac. The latter spice mix – oregano and sumac berries, along with a few other ingredients – still is used today in Lebanon and Syria.
Legend has it, the Greek goddess Aphrodite created aromatic oregano as a symbol of joy and grew it in her garden on Mount Olympus. Perhaps we should not be surprised that oregano was believed to bring happiness. After all, it seems to cure most everything. {One of the ancient Greek names for oregano was panakes or “all-heal.}
Oregano {Origanum spp.} has played a significant role in medicine, cookery, and cosmetics for thousands of years. Today, our love for this powerful herb continues, though primarily for its role in cooking; more than 300,00 tons of oregano are consumed each year in the United States alone. Yet, despite oregano’s popularity, most of us really know very little about the plant itself or its true flavor potential.
Knowing how to select and grow your own oregano brings rich rewards: When grown in the right conditions, oregano yields luxurious flavor-the essence of Mediterranean sun and sea that is infinitely better than any you can buy in a jar.

Oregano-5-2009-2Oregano {Plant Profile}


Origanum spp.
Botanical Background:
Member of the mint family; 42 species native to the Mediterranean or Eurasia. Most found only wild, especially in Cyprus, southern Turkey, western Syria, and Lebanon.


Perennial or shrubby plants range in height from 2-3 inches to 3 feet or more. Aromatic leaves; small purple, pink or white flowers highly attractive to bees and butterflies.


Common oregano {O. vulgare} and its subspecies and varieties are hardy to Zone 5 or 6. Sweet marjoram {O. majorana}, Turkish oregano {O. onites} and other tender species usually are grown as annuals.


Full sun; well-drained soil; neutral to alkaline pH.

Harvest Tips:

For use in cooking, cut branches back by half just before bloom.

 Many oregano’s originate in the area around the eastern Mediterranean Sea. For maximum flavor when growing oregano, mimic the plant’s native conditions, such as this rocky coastline in Cyprus, home to 21 Origanum species.

Greek Oregano

{Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum};
Zones 5-9
Grows to 18 inches; white flowers. Aromatic leaves have the spicy, pungent flavor. The classic culinary oregano, famed for pizza; use for any tomato dish, eggs, olives, soups, stuffings.

Common Oregano 


{Origanum vulgare}
Zones 5-9
Also called wild marjoram. Grows to 24 inches; purple-red blooms. Very aromatic. Not for cooking, leaves used medicinally and to scent soaps and lotions. Blooms dry nicely.

Sweet Marjoram

sweet marjoram
{Origanum majorana}
Zones 9-11
Grows 10-12 inches tall; tiny white flowers. Sweet and milder than Greek oregano; complements poultry and vegetables; also used in vinegar’s, soups, dressings.

Dittany of Crete

dittany of crete
{Origanum dictamnus}
Zones 7-9
Grows 5-6 inches tall, spreads 16 inches across. White, wooly leaves and attractive pink flowers. Mostly used medicinally, but strong-flavored leaves also can be used in cooking.

Turkish Oregano

turkish oregano
{Origanum onites}
Zones 9-11
Sometimes labeled Cretan oregano or pot marjoram. Reaches 18 inches; white flowers. Does well indoors. Use for cooking; sharp flavor, stronger than Greek oregano.

Mexican Oregano

mexican oregano flowers
{Lippia graveolens}
Zones 9-11
Not an Origanum, but has the same sharp, pungent flavor associated with oregano due to its carvacrol content. Grows to 24 inches. Use in Mexican dishes, including moles.