By: Justin Butts Photo By: Rachel Benavides
Oregano is native to Greece. The Greek words oros ganos translates to “joy of the mountains.” This joy is evident in a Greek sunset, standing in a field of wild oregano with the wind blowing down from the mountains and the dark blue of the Ionian Sea shimmering in the distance. The scent of the purple flowers is intoxicating.
Oregano was a prized culinary and medicinal herb in Greece long before Alexander marched his soldiers east to conquer Asia. Oregano was a core provision; essential to the army as food and medicine. The soldiers carried its cultivation to Egypt, Iran, and all the way to the hot jungles of the Ganges.
There came to be many varieties of oregano around the world. In fact, knowing what is actually true oregano can be tricky, because many plants called by that name are not oregano at all. Mexican oregano (Poliomintha longiflora) is in the verbena family. Cuban oregano (Coleus amboinicus) is in the mint family, like true oregano, but a completely different genus. Thyme and marjoram are often substituted for or confused with oregano. Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare) is the true herb. Still, all these versions are beautiful and fragrant, and each has its own flavor.
Oregano in all its forms is a perennial herb. Most types are easily killed by a freeze or even a light frost. Oregano in an outdoor garden, unless well protected in winter, must be replanted each spring.
Fortunately, oregano is gorgeous and easy to care for as a potted plant. Make sure the pots get morning sun and afternoon shade, especially in the heat of summer. Water often in pots with excellent drainage. Come winter, bring the plants indoors by a window with good light.
a need-to-know basis
All types of oregano: Plant only transplants after Feb 15. Space 15”. Morning sun, afternoon shade. Plant in richly composted, well-drained soil. Mulch with native leaves. Water deeply and infrequently once established. No fertilizer except compost. Cuban can grow aggressively, like mint. Once established, harvest leaves by trimming the top three inches of stalks to promote bushy growth. Pinch and remove flowers or plant stops growing.
Greek oregano offers the familiar flavor we recognize in pasta sauce. Cuban oregano is highly aromatic, not as pungent as Greek, but sweeter and less harsh. Cuban tastes like a mixture of oregano, mint, and camphor. Mexican oregano grows wild throughout northern Mexico. The cabrito in the mountains around Monterrey, Mexico, is heavily flavored with pungent Mexican oregano. Oregano flavor is strongest just prior to flowering. Fresh oregano loses flavor when cooked, so add at the end of the cooking process.
Oregano for me is completely overlooked. Everyone believes it’s only good for pasta sauce, as it so closely identified with Mediterranean cuisine. However, as a member of the mint family, it has wonderful applications for desserts and sweets. It works great in sorbets and ice cream, as well as sweetbreads. I would love to see people adventure in to this area to experience this side of the flavors of oregano!
– Chef Dean Sprague, @chefsprague
Executive Chef Omni Hotel
Oregano essential oil is believed by many to be an effective treatment for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. Oregano essential oil contains the compounds carvocal and thymol, which are antioxidants called phenols. According to the NIH, these compounds have proven effective in treating bacterial infections. MRSA is a painful, debilitating, and even life-threatening infection. Do your own research and see if oregano essential oil can help offer relief from the ravages of MRSA.