In the 1940's, a lot of interest in foreign cuisine was
generated by the soldiers who returned home from the war. They had experienced
different foods that were spicier, and, yes, even more flavorful than Mom's pot
roast. True, there were some ethnic groups at that time who grew some spicy
Oreganos, but most of us didn't have a clue.
Unfortunately, when we did start growing Oregano in our
gardens, it often took over, invading our herb gardens, our lawns, and our
flower beds. Even worse, it had no flavor except that of grass. The seeds we
were sowing were easily collected from the wilds of the Mediterranean where
Oregano covered the mountains (Oregano, loosely interpreted from the Greek,
means Joy of the Mountain). This rampantly growing plant is what we now refer to
as Wild Marjoram. It has a pink flower which is great as a dried flower, but
even so, there are much better behaved ornamental
Oreganos to grow for flower arranging. Like Wild Marjoram, they also
have no flavor. Eventually, a flavorful sub species of this Wild Marjoram made
its way to America from Greece; and , quite naturally, we called it Greek Oregano.
Originally given the botanical name of Origanum heracleoticum, its correct
botanic handle now is Origanum vulgare hirtum. Origanum vulgare is the
botanic name for the Wild Marjoram with the pink flower and no flavor. So our
tasty Greek Oregano is a wild child (hybrid) of the flavorless Wild
Marjoram. Hirtum means hairy, which helps to distinguish it from the Wild
Marjoram, as long as you have the two side by side.
Fortunately, there is an easier way to tell which is which:
just taste them. About 15 years ago, I was giving an interview to a magazine
writer and I told her that
Greek Oregano is so spicy that fresh leaves numb the end of your tongue.
She liked that and used it in her magazine. It must have struck a true note with
many, because I see that descriptive phrase used often to describe this
plant. If you purchase your Oregano at a nursery, rub the leaf, if
you don't get a wonderful waft of fragrance, put it back
||Those little hairs on the plant's leaves and stems are an indicator of what
the climate is like in its home town. The hairs provide shade for the plant and slow
down transpiration (or water loss) from the plant. This allows the plant to
survive some pretty hot, dry weather. The more of these little shade providers,
the grayer the plant. That is why many gray leaved plants are tops on drought
Conversely, these plants can be difficult to grow in areas of
heat and humidity or excessive winter rain. Humidity can be dealt with somewhat
by planting in raised beds or containers and by giving the plants plenty of space
between them for air to circulate. Well drained soil will help during periods of
excessive rain, and raised beds filled with organic topsoil and compost are
good for this also. Anywhere puddles form after a rain is probably not a great
place for Greek Oregano. And, like most herbs, six hours of sun is
preferable to fully develop those mouth watering flavors. In hot summer areas,
afternoon shade can cut down on watering and stress to the plant. And mulching
is always a good practice to improve the soil and help keep root zone
temperatures moderate. Any stress a plant goes through, such as parching and
watering and parching and watering, will invite insects and disease.
Greek Oregano, like other members of the
Lamiaceae family, most notably
has two growth phases. The first occurs as the plant awakens from its winter
dormancy. The soft tender shoots push up from the ground and reach eagerly for
the sun; they continue upwards for a month so and then begin making flower
heads. By the first of summer, they will be in full flower. The flowers of Greek
Oregano and other culinary oreganos are white and fairly unexciting. Some
culinary Oreganos, like Italian, Sicilian and Cretan, have flowers that
can be used for crafts such as herbal
wreaths. These plants have a smaller, waxier leaves on the flower stem
that hold up better than the hairy, soft leaves of Greek Oregano when
dried. They also have tighter flower heads that hold up better when dried.
Cutting the plant's stems often will discourage flowering and encourage fresh
growth and bushiness. It can be mowed or sheared to within two inches of the
ground when harvesting or maintaining the garden, usually at least three times a
year in our long growing season. When a plant is flowering, it is not making new
leaves and the pickings can become slimmer and less flavorful. Around the middle
of summer, the plant decides it has made enough flowers and begins its second
phase of growth. This is a lateral growth that allows the plant to increase in
diameter and it will continue to grow upward as well. Giving the plant soft loose
soil to spread into will encourage the runners to seek new ground.
Greek Oregano has a strong flavor but it doesn't hold up well to prolonged
cooking, especially when used fresh. Harvest fresh leaves right before you are
going to use them. Wash them and pat them dry. If you are harvesting several
hours ahead of
time, wash them, pat them dry, and wrap in dry paper towels and refrigerate. They
will keep a few hours this way. Or whole stems can be placed in a glass or, even
better, an attractive vase of water. This is a fun way to prepare for a meal.
Pick several kinds of cooking herbs and make a culinary bouquet. Aromatic sprigs
of Rosemary, Greek Oregano, Winter Savory, and Basil waiting close by will make
both the creative and digestive juices flow. Greek Oregano chopped and
mixed with garlic, salt, and olive oil makes a great marinade for pork, beef, or
roasted potatoes. Add a little Rosemary to the marinade and use it on poultry.
Or use fresh leaves as a topping for homemade pizza (this is the way Greek
Oregano was first used for pizza, not as ingredient in the sauce).
Dried Greek Oregano is a great way to get through the winter blues. It can be used for
herbal marinades or can be added near the end of cooking to any tomato based sauce, sauté, stir
fry, or egg dish. Try a sprinkle of dried Greek Oregano on your next grilled
cheese sandwich. Fresh or dried Oregano can also be combined with other herbs to make a
herb crusting mix for pork chops, tenderloins, or chicken breasts or a savory
herbal marinade. When substituting dried herbs for fresh herbs, one
tablespoon of fresh herbs equals about one teaspoon of dried herbs. Small
amounts of Greek Oregano can be dried any time. Usually just laying the
clippings left over from dinner's harvest in a ceramic bowl will do the trick.
To harvest for winter use it is easiest to
dry all that will be needed at one time. Four to six weeks before the first
frost, cut the herb back to about three inches above the ground Allow the
plant to regrow and then, before frost, cut long stems (6 to 8 inches), tie in
small groups, and hang out of sunlight in a warm room. Check often and, when
crispy dry, store whole stems in glass jars in a dark cupboard or pantry.
Leaving the leaves on the stems will preserve more flavor than stripping the
leaves and grinding them into a powder. Greek Oregano can also be pureed with a
bit of olive oil and frozen. Freeze flat in pint size zip lock bags. Because the
olive oil doesn't freeze, sections of this frozen pesto can be easily broken off
Fresh, dried, or frozen, Greek Oregano will set your taste buds
Which Culinary Oregano is right
Use our flavor and intensity chart to select the
Culinary Origanum most intriguing to you. Flavor is measured with 1 being
close to Sweet Marjoram and 10 being close to Greek Oregano. Intensity is
how it numbs your tongue, with 1 being mild and 10 being the spiciest.
While Sweet Marjoram is included in our table, we advise that you direct
seed this tender perennial; therefore, we do not offer it for sale.
What about other plants with
The following plants have all had the
Oregano tag added to their common name because, even though they are not
true origanums, they contain that special 'Oregano' flavor.
Plectranthus amboinicus, Cuban
Monarda menthaefolia, Oregano de la Sierra
Lippia Graveolens, Mexican Oregano
Poliomintha longifolia, Southwestern Oregano
These, along with our true Origanums,
represent the world.
Oregano is one of the six plants included in our
Garden Six Pack.
This plant is often
available in plug trays. These trays hold 128 of all the
same plant. They are a great low cost way to fill a lot of
space. Each cell is 3/4 of inch an inch. Check here to see
Oregano Plug Trays