The Greeks and Romans understood the magic of this wonderful herb. In wedding ceremonies they made crowns of oregano for the young couples to ward off forces that brought upon sadness. Can we please make this a new trend, rather than the current trend of wearing feathers in your hair? I could totally dig on people smelling of oregano all day.
Though the herb that brings savoriness to many cuisines has been used since the dawn of the human race, it is somewhat new to the United States. Oregano became popular after the World Wars of the 20th century, when soldiers came home having developed a taste for the “pizza herb”.
There are many species of oregano that are used in cooking. Origanum vulgare is the popular one found in commercially sold spices. Though the cheaper oregano (often sold as Mexican oregano) in the grocery store is not even an oregano, but a Lippia (L. graveolens). In my opinion the coarse flavor of this plant is way less refined than true oregano. My personal favorite is Greek oregano (O. vulgare var. prismaticum) which has a deeper, more complicated flavor. This is due to a higher concentration of the phenolic compound carvacrol which lends oregano its penetrating quality. Greek oregano is particularly rich in this compound.
There are many other species of oregano to play with: marjoram (O. marjorana) has a sweeter flavor with piney/citrus overtones. There are actually some other oreganos out there with varying flavors, some more ornamental. One of these less culinary varieties that I love is dittany of Crete (O. dictamnus). This herb has a long, long history of being used in magic, particularly in love potions and medicinal aphrodisiacs. It’s also just a GORGEOUS plant. The leaves are more lanate , (covered in a grayish down) and the flowers are pale pink to purple and have a deep lilac corolla with many deep pink coloured overlapping bracts which cascade about the plant.
One other species of note: Cuban oregano. It’s not an oregano at all but another mint family relative (Plectranthus amboinicus) native to Africa. This is a tropical plant that is either treated as an annual (which will freeze and die) or grown in a container and protected. The flavor is very much like oregano with hints of sage. It is also much stronger, so be careful not to overdo the quantity and overwhelm a dish with Cuban oregano flavor. Use this oregano with beans. The flavors of beans and Cuban oregano are amazing together. Leaves have a downy texture like oregano, only they are more succulent.
Oregano likes average garden soil. Avoid over-feeding or over-watering to maintain pungency of flavor in the leaves. While I believe most plants are best started from direct-seeding, this is not true for oregano. If you start from seed, start in pots and select the best flavored plants to put in the garden (get rid of the other ones). Plants started from seed will have lots of variation in flavor. Plants in the nursery are most often grown from cuttings and usually good selections have been made for you. So for once, I am going to suggest getting a plant rather than seed, unless you want to play.
Grow in full sun and plant out in spring after threat of frost. Oregano will go dormant in winter and look crappy, even dead. Avoid over-watering during this time. Marjoram will straight up die from frost and will need to be re-planted in spring. Make the practice of making lots of cuttings/divisions to multiply your plants for giving away or refreshening your oregano bed. Speaking of the oregano bed: these plants are vigourous growers, and while they are not AS aggressive as mint, they are in the mint family and should be given plenty of room to grow. They will take over if permitted.
Mountain Valley Growers have many oregano varieties to choose from. Try some of the local nurseries. In Tucson, Mesquite Valley Growers usually carries Greek oregano and a few others.