Oregano, the Confusing Herb

Oregano, the Confusing Herb

Oregano is more of a mystery to the people that use it than most any other herb. It has so many varieties that it is a whole genus of herbs, and these have all been called oregano for their culinary uses. What comes to mind when you think of oregano? Pizza? Tomato sauce? Do you picture it growing in your garden? Many people use oregano, and it is one of the world's favorite herbs.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Rachel Klein adds, "While predominantly grown for culinary use, oregano also makes a beautiful ground cover or edging plant. Smaller varieties are perfect additions to rock gardens."

The History of Oregano

Oregano, scientifically named Origanum vulgare, is a part of the mint family. It is also called "wild marjoram" due to the close relationship between oregano and the herb marjoram. Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is a sweet variety native to the Mediterranean region. Oregano looks like marjoram, and has the same genus, meaning they are close cousins. To tell the difference, sweet marjoram has leaves that are more hairy and grey-green in color.

There are 20 other members of the Origanum family, and they can be easily confused with one another. This confusion begins very early in history, when Greeks and Romans made use of it. No one is sure what species was used, but perhaps it was Origanum vulgare, the common oregano that grows wild in the mountains of Greece. Its name means "joy of the mountain," derived from the Greek.

TIP: Rachel adds, "Greek oregano (Origanum heracleoticum) has a more pungent flavor than Common oregano and is associated more with modern Greek dishes. Other tasty varieties of oregano include Cuban oregano which has a stronger flavor and Mexican oregano which is more savory than the common variety."

Much of its early use was for medicinal rather than culinary benefit. The Greeks made poultices of the leaves to heal sores and aching muscles. The Roman scholar Pliny recommended a poultice of oregano leaves for spider and scorpion bites. Not until the Greek physician Discoridores wrote about it in the first century AD was more than one variety mentioned, and then as medicines.

Oregano became very popular in the United States around 1940, when GI's returning home longed for the taste of Italy. It isn't called the "pizza herb" for nothing. In fact, sales of oregano in the United States increased 5200 percent between 1948 and 1956.

Medicinal Uses

Modern herbalists recommend infusions of oregano leaves for indigestion, headache, coughs, and to promote menstruation. It is deemed both a tonic and a stimulant. Today, people still use oil of oregano for toothache, putting a few drops of the oil on the aching tooth to relieve pain. Oil of oregano can also be applied to provide immediate help for insect bites and bee stings. To this day, poultices of oregano leaves are used to soothe pain. Tea made from oregano leaves treats loss of appetite, indigestion, bloating, and headaches. Whether or not these remedies work has not been determined.

Culinary Uses of Oregano

Oregano is used to flavor tomato dishes and sauces, providing the pungent, peppery flavor so common to Italian and Mediterranean cuisine. The leaves are used in Italy, Greece, Mexico, Spain, Cuba and Brazil. Wherever you find marjoram, you will find oregano in use. Oregano enhances cheese and eggs, and is used in omelets, frittatas and quiche. It gives breads and marinated or roasted vegetables their unique flavor. In meats, it is used in beef, pork, poultry and game for flavor. It is very good with shellfish. It combines well with garlic, basil, parsley and olive oil.

TIP: Rachel says, "It is usually more flavorful dried than fresh. It pairs extremely well with spicy foods. The flavor is strongest when added towards the end of cooking."

How to Grow Oregano

Oregano seeds are very tiny--about 130,000 to an ounce. Oregano is an aromatic hardy perennial. Depending on the variety, it is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 10. It has erect, hairy square stems. It will grow to 2 feet in height, with sprawling leaves to about 18 inches. Flowers are long, tubular, with ¼-inch long, edible, rose-purple to white flowers. Leaves are either toothed or toothless, grow in opposite pairs, and are up to 2 inches long. Seedlings are almost always available at major nurseries, but if you must resort to seed, the best way to plant is to sow on the open ground. Cover with cheesecloth to prevent wind blowing the seeds away. Remove the cloth when seeds are up and established.

TIP: Rachel suggests, "You can start the seeds indoors if the weather is still cool. Barely cover the seeds with soil and keep moist. Transplant seedlings outside when the temperature rises above 45 degrees F. Oregano plants prefer full sun and well-drained soil. Differing climate, soil, and moisture conditions can cause variations in the flavor of oregano. The flowers are also edible and should be pinched off to keep the plant from going to seed."

Harvesting and Storage

Oregano leaves will be most flavorful before the plant begins to flower. Snip sprigs when it is 4 to 5 inches high. Dry by hanging 5 to 6 sprigs together upside down in a cool dry place.

Cooking with Oregano

Here is a simple Greek dish. The only problem you may have is finding fresh sardines.

Baked Sardines with Garlic & Oregano

  • 2 pounds of fresh sardines
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Rigani (Greek oregano)
  • 5-6 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup of olive oil
  • 1/2 cup of lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup of water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Remove the scales and intestines from sardines.
Lay in baking dish and top with all ingredients to taste.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

Oregano is a favorite of almost all chefs. Grow it, buy it fresh in the supermarket, but do use it. The great taste of oregano in its many forms can't be beat.