Oregano, ‘the pizza herb’, is part of the mint family and, just like mint itself, can take over the garden as we have found! In fact, I thought the oregano plant had died under the mass of other plants that had filled the space but, with the warmer weather and the abundant rain, it came back, bigger and better than ever!
What is oregano?
Common oregano, Origanum vulgare, comes from the stony hillsides of countries around the Mediterranean. In its native habitat, Oregano grows in poor soil in an area that receives rain in winter and endures a hot, dry summer. Give it plenty of moisture and it will become rampant!
Is oregano the same as marjoram?
Oregano is sometimes called ‘wild marjoram’ which has led to some confusion about the two plants. They both have a similar, sprawling habit and their leaves have a similar shape. Oregano is a more olive-green plant when compared to the grey-green leaves of marjoram. Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is sweeter; oregano has a bolder, more earthy, slightly bitter taste. Marjoram can be substituted for oregano, but use only half as much due to its sweetness.
Is there only one variety of oregano?
There are, not surprisingly, different types of oregano, just as there are different types of mint, basil or thyme. To confuse the issue, common oregano is often called Greek oregano but sometimes Italian oregano!!
We have two varieties growing in our garden. Common oregano, the variety you find bottled as a dried herb or as part of Italian seasoning, and the type used on pizza is herbaceous in our garden. The smaller-leafed, upright type known as “Italian oregano” which has very distinctive seed pods (perhaps because they are upright and hang on the plant for long after the seeds have been dispersed). The common variety has a milder flavour than the smaller leafed Italian variety which, from a distance, looks like thyme.
These are not the only two varieties available. We have seeds for a Turkish variety, known as ‘Onites’ but have never successfully got it to germinate. Like many herbs, we have found it easier to propagate from cuttings rather than start them from seed.
Mexican oregano, Lippia graveolens, which is used in the making of chilli powder, is from a different family altogether. It has a very strong flavour and common oregano is a poor substitute if a recipe calls for the Mexican variety.
HOW TO GROW OREGANO
As stated earlier, it is not easy to raise oregano from seed. Buy a small plant at a garden centre or, better still, find someone who grows oregano and take some cuttings. The plants themselves are easy care. They grow best in a warm, not hot, position in full sun. If you like a really tidy garden, we would recommend a pot: common oregano can get out of control and take over easily. On the other hand, it makes a great groundcover and the unwanted runners are easily removed. These can be potted as cuttings and given away to friends. You could also freeze or dry the leaves and use them in winter when fresh oregano is not available.
Oregano plants are shallow rooted and survive in their native landscape by pushing their roots under rocks where the soil is cooler and more moist. Watch you plants closely in hot weather – they can dry out quite easily. Ease up on the water in winter when the plants are semi-dormant. Ours disappears completely in winter so we rarely have to think about it!
You can harvest the leaves from your oregano plant fairly soon after it has been planted. Once new growth is seen, the plant is established and harvest can begin. Take only a little to begin with and increase the amount you harvest as the plant increases in size.
The flowers attract bees, both honey bees and native bees, to your garden but the compromise is, once the plant starts flowering, the flavour of the leaves can become more bitter. The good news is that the flowers are also completely edible and, due to the nectar, are sweeter than the leaves.
FUN FINAL FACT
Oregano and its close relative, marjoram, were traditionally used for their medicinal and antiseptic properties rather than their flavour.