Each year, a species is chosen as Herb of the Year. For 2005, oregano received that honor. This plant is among the top ten culinary herbs.
When the word oregano is mentioned, the one that comes to mind is the common or ordinary oregano (Origanum vulgare). Yet, there are actually several subspecies or hybrid types of oregano.
All of the oreganos prefer a sunny, dry, well-drained spot. They do best in a slightly alkaline soil.
Common oregano or wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare subsp. vulgare) is a perennial herb. It grows wild in the Mediterranean area and Asia, especially at the higher altitudes. The hairy, purplish stem arises from a creeping rootstock. Like all the members of the mint family, this has a square stem and opposite leaves. The surface of the egg-shaped foliage is uneven due to the presence of sunken areas. Blooming from July through October, oregano produces purple blossoms that are typically two-lipped like other members of the mint family. This species is hardy to about -20 degrees Fahrenheit. This plant is easily grown from seed or cuttings, and may also be divided.
So far as its many culinary uses are concerned, common oregano is a favorite for tomato sauces, grilled meats, and fried vegetables. It is often found in pizza and other Italian dishes. Used to a less extent in Greek, French, and Spanish cooking, it is most common in Mediterranean cooking.
In addition to its many culinary uses, oregano has long been a favorite medicinal herb—especially among the ancient Greeks and Asians. Oregano contains thymol, an ingredient that can help loosen mucous and relieve symptoms of the respiratory system.
Oregano has also been the source of a natural dye. When they’re in bloom, the tops of the plants are cut and used for a reddish-brown dye. This herb was used for aromatic purposes as well. People would rub the foliage over wooden furniture, which gave the item a nice scent.
The history of oregano is an interesting one. Young Greek and Roman couples were crowned with the herb. If it happened to be growing on a grave, the ancients believed that it would ensure happiness of the deceased one.
Greek oregano (Originum vulgare hirtum) is considered by some experts to be a hybrid of the ordinary oregano, while others see it as a subspecies from Greece. Originally native to Greece, it is now commonly found in other parts of Europe. It has become naturalized in the Middle East as well.
This low growing perennial has fuzzy, gray-green aromatic foliage. Compared to the other oregano species, this one is coarse looking. The lower leaves have long leaf stalks. From June through August, the white blossoms open in terminal clusters. These are pollinated by various insects, including butterflies, moths, and bees. The seeds ripen from about August through October. This is hardy to USDA zone 5. Basically, this plant requires the same growing conditions as the common oregano.
So far as flavor is concerned, this is one of the strongest, most aromatic of the oreganos. It can even have a faintly bitter taste. The plant has a high oil content. In fact, this is high enough to irritate sensitive skin. Essential oil is extracted from this plant.
Like the common oregano, this plant has many medicinal uses. It should never be used by pregnant women. Historically, this was used in parts of Europe during medieval times to treat poisonous bites, hysteria. People also used it as protection against witchcraft and illness. Some people with sensitive skin may find the plant causes irritation.
Other uses for the various kinds of oregano
A number of cookbooks and herbals have suggestions for using the different species of oregano and other herbs. “Edible Flowers From Garden to Palate” by Cathy Wilkinson Barash was published by Fulcrum Publishing. Readers will see why this title was nominated for the Julia Child Cookbook Award, given by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. The dishes are beautifully presented with nearly three hundred innovative recipes that are easy and fun to make. There are complete profiles for nearly sixty different herbs and flowers with complete instructions on how to grow and use them. The author explains how to harvest them at their peak of flavor and store them properly.
“Aromatherapy in the Kitchen-Fragrant Foods for Body, Mind and Soul” by Melissa Dale et al from Woodland Publishing features over eighty-five recipes made with aromatic ingredients, including oregano. The authors have included various dishes that can achieve different purposes, including comfort foods, ones to inspire romance, and soothing recipes to relax and renew the body, mind and soul. Alongside each recipe, a box contains folklore and highlights about these fragrant plants.
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