Lamiaceae (Mint family)
International Herb Association "Herb of the Year 2005"
Description Oreganos are aromatic, herbaceous perennials with erect, hairy, square stems. Leaves are opposite, oval, toothed or toothless, pointed and up to 2 inches long. They feature ¼-inch long, tubular, two-lipped, whitish to pinkish flowers typically seen from late July until September. Oregano reaches a height of 12-24 inches, and a width of 10-20 inches.
Oregano is often the source of confusion because there are so many herbs called by the name. First, when you speak of oregano, you're not speaking of a single herb, but an entire genus. The genus Origanum covers over 20 species. Second, to add further confusion, there are several imitators called oregano that aren't origanum at all.
Most oregano are perennials grown for culinary use. This includes oregano and sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana). Most popular for cooking are Spanish or wild oregano (Origanum vulgare) and Greek oregano (O. v. var. prismaticum). Golden oregano (O. v. variegatum) is a variety that is attractive to butterflies. Popular oregano imitators are Cuban oregano (Coleus amboinicus) and several Mexican oreganos (Poliomintha longiflora, Lippia graveolens, and Monarda fistulosa var. menthifolia. Each of these are favorites in the kitchen. Oregano, Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum also referred to as O. heracleoticum and O. hirtum, is native to the Mediterranean region of Europe and central Asia and has naturalized in the eastern United States.
Cultivation Because of its sprawling growth pattern, oregano is better suited for growing outdoors than in. Oregano likes light, well-drained, slightly alkaline soil (about a 6.8 pH) with full sun. Rich, moist soil makes the aroma and flavor of oregano weak. Oregano can be grown from seeds, stem cuttings, or root divisions. Seeds are sometimes slow to germinate, and plants grown from seed may not be true to the flavor of the parent plant, or may even be flavorless. It is better to propagate by root divisions or cuttings from plants that are known to have strong flavor. Sprigs of oregano can be cut off when the plant is at least 6 inches high. In June, vigorously grown plants can be cut back to the lowest set of leaves. Plants will generally leaf out after a few weeks and can be cut back again in August. Some pest and disease problems for oregano include aphids, leafminers, spider mites, and root rot.
Oregano makes a good companion plant for beans and cauliflower, but should not be planted with broccoli or cabbage.
The leaves dry easily and can be frozen, but some people believe that drying the leaves actually improves the flavor, making it sweeter and more aromatic.
History and Folklore That several varieties of oregano cloak the mountainsides in Greece in a bright green likely explains the origins of the herb's name. Oregano is derived from the Greek words oros and ganos, literally meaning "mountain joy." Greeks and Romans would crown a bride and groom with sprigs of oregano during the wedding ceremony because the herb was thought to banish sadness.
Many original uses for oregano were medicinal, not culinary. The Greeks made a poultice of the leaves and applied it to aching muscles. The Romans recommended oregano poultices for scorpion and spider bites. Oregano came to North America with European colonists and escaped the gardens to grow wild. Oregano became a standard of medicine in the United States. An oregano tissane was used for chronic coughs and asthma. A few drops of oregano essential oil was rubbed on an aching tooth. Bald men hopefully rubbed a mixture of olive oil and oregano onto their scalps. This same oil was applied to rheumatic limbs and sprains. Using oregano as a cooking herb didn't really catch on in the U.S. until after World War II when soldiers returning from the Mediterranean brought their newfound fondness for Italian seasonings, namely oregano.
Uses The leaves of oregano are key to seasoning the cuisines of Italy, Greece, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Cuba, and Columbia. It is best known for its use in tomato sauce to add a hot and peppery taste. It adds dimension to yeast breads, marinated vegetables, black beans, zucchini, eggplant, roasted meats, and fish. It enhances cheese and egg combinations (quiches, omelets and frittatas). Garlic, thyme, parsley and olive oil complement its flavor.
Tomatoes With Feta and Oregano
4 firm-ripe tomatoes, sliced ½-inch thick
Preheat broiler. Lightly oil a baking sheet and place tomato slices in a single layer. Drizzle slices with oil and season with salt and pepper. Top with oregano leaves and feta. Place tomatoes under the broiler and cook until they soften a bit and the cheese is lightly browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Serve immediately. Serves 4.
From Brenda Hyde's website
Barclay, Gwen, Jean Hardy and Madalene Hill. Southern Herb Growing. Fredricksburg, TX: Shearer Publishing, 1987.
Kowalchik, Claire and William H. Hylton, Editors. Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, Inc., 1987.