What type of herb is Oregano & Marjoram?
Oregano and Marjoram are culinary and medicinal herbs from the family Lamiaceae and the genus Origanum and, for the most part, they are native to the Mediterranean region. There are annuals and perennials in this family; all thrive in a warm well drained soil in full sun.
In the UK much confusion has been caused by calling the Origanum genus by the common name of both Oregano and Marjoram. Therefore, when people refer to Oregano they could be referring to Marjoram. Oreganos and Marjorams are the same genus but are different species; therefore, you can think of them as very close cousins. We have them in two separate beds in Jekka’s Herbetum so you can see the difference. If you look carefully, you will notice it is the flowers that separate the species with Marjoram having clusters of tiny white tubular flowers growing around a green centre in a knot, or surrounded by green bracts whereas Oregano has groups of small mauve, pink or white tubular flowers. Further confusion arises when completely different species are called Oregano; such as in Mexico where Oregano is the colloquial name for a totally unrelated plant within the Lamiaceae family with a similar flavour.
Mythology & history around Oregano
Oregano is derived from the Greek oros, meaning ‘mountain’, and ganos, meaning ‘joy’ and ‘beauty’. Therefore, it translates as ‘joy of the mountain’ or ‘mountain beauty’. In Greece it is woven in the crown worn by bridal couples.
According to Greek mythology, the King of Cyprus had a servant called Amaerakos, who dropped a jar of perfume and fainted in terror. As his punishment the gods changed him into Oregano, after which, if it was found growing on a burial tomb, all was believed well with the dead.
A particularly interesting story associated with Oregano, is that Aristotle reported that tortoises, after swallowing a snake, would immediately eat Oregano to prevent death, which gave rise to the belief that it was an antidote to poison. This might not be true, but Oregano is naturally high in thymol which is a natural disinfectant and was purportedly used as an antiseptic by Hippocrates. It is also used as a germ-killer in mouthwashes and liniments.
How do you grow and maintain Oregano
Origanum vulgare, Origanum majorana and Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum ‘Greek’ can be started from seeds. The seed is very fine, so sow in spring into prepared seed or plug trays. Germination can be erratic or 100% successful. Watering is critical when the seedlings are young; keep the compost on the dry side. When the seedlings are large enough either pot on or, if warm enough, plant out. Plant the seeds in well-drained soil any time after the last spring frost.
The remaining species can only be propagated by cuttings or division. Softwood cuttings can be taken from the new growing tips in spring. The mat forming Oreganos lend themselves to division which can also be done in spring.
Most of the Oreganos and Marjorams need a sunny garden site and a well-drained, dry, preferable gritty soil. With the exception of the Origanum vulgare which are hardy and will adapt and tolerate most soils as long as it is not water logged and sunny. All Origanums look great in a container, add extra grit to the potting compost and place the golden varieties in a bit of shade to prevent them from scorching.
Jekka’s tip is to cut back hard after flowering to form a tight crown of new growth that will protect it from the rains.
Oregano as a culinary herb
Marjoram and Oregano aid the digestion, and act as an antiseptic and as a preservative. Grown for its strong tasting, slightly spicy and pungent leaves, Oregano is an important herb in Italian, Greek and Mexican cooking. It goes particularly well with tomatoes, aubergine and lamb and is generally added just at the end of cooking, so that it retains its pungency. Oregano is also one of the main ingredients in bouquet garni. Leaves and flowering tops can also be infused for tea.
See our herb-based recipe 'Jekka’s Manakish Zaatar & Flatbreads' through the link below.