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2005 - Oregano/Marjoram
MHS Herb of the Year

Oregano and Marjoram – 2005 Herb of the Year
Oregano Marjoram Cookbook By Debbie Cravens – Madison Herb Society Member

Our Herb of the Year comprises 36 different species in the genus Origanum, which includes many fragrant and ornamental herbs. All members of the mint family (Labiatae), often these are difficult to identify within the genus. These plants include sweet marjoram, hardy sweet marjoram, Greek or Turkish oregano, pot marjoram and Dittany of Crete to name just a few. It helps when you use the botanical names to distinguish these species and subspecies and I will do that as we delve more deeply into this interesting group of herbs.

Most of us buy culinary herbs by taste and smell (or at least I hope we do) and I think this is what really counts. Because of this, we can also include other plants in our collection, those that are not Origanums but have similar flavors. Some examples of these plants include Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus ), oregano thyme (Thymus pulegioides – oregano scented), and Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens ). Since we have enough on our plate with the Origanums , I’ll leave the oregano-flavored plants to your personal study. Do try them, though.

Sweet Marjoram
Origanum marjorana (o-rig a num ma jo ra na)
Because it is one of my favorite herbs, I’ll start our discussion with sweet marjoram. Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs identifies the sweet marjoram as a gentle subtly perfumed calming herb and I couldn’t agree more. The Greeks called the plant “joy of the mountains.” Its fragrance is what I appreciate the most. This plant has the square stem of the mint family, with ovate and opposite, gray-green leaves. It is a smallish, shrubby plant reaching perhaps two feet in height. The flowers have a very distinctive knot-like shape just before blossoming and have small white or pink flower spikes of three to five flowers. Sweet Marjoram is a tender perennial, hardiness only to zones 9 or 10. As do all Mediterranean herbs, this plant thrives in full sun and well-drained soil. Because it doesn’t overwinter in Wisconsin we need to replant Sweet Marjoram new each year or bring it in the house for the winter. Plants enjoy an alkaline soil (lime) pH 6.7-6.9, which makes it a good plant to grow in southern Wisconsin.

Marjoram grows easily from seed, although some say it is slow to germinate. Plant inside in a soil-less potting mix and transplant outside when all danger of frost is past after hardening off for a week or two. You can also take cuttings to root when the plant is actively growing.

Mostly we think of sweet marjoram as a culinary herb. It is an often-overlooked culinary herb, however. Cooks tend to reach for thyme or oregano forgetting marjoram, whose flavor offers a subtle compromise between the two. Both marjoram and oregano share a minty sharpness, but marjoram’s flavor is sweeter and more earthy. Marjoram naturally complements tomatoes, olives, seafood and grilled food. And since it contains a high amount of tannin, which helps the digestion of rich food, it also is ideal for more substantial fall and winter cooking. Its pleasing, peppery flavor is perfect with mushrooms, eggs, sausage and pork. Also add chopped marjoram to tomato, potato and egg salads and to guacamole. Add it to anything with cheese in it – omelets, enchiladas and scalloped ham and potatoes.

Oregano – Everybody’s Favorite Pizza Herb
There are at least three dozen oregano (Origanum) species and several more herbs that have the familiar taste of oregano. All oreganos are perennial plants, but most are tender perennials in Wisconsin. If you are looking for oregano, the culinary herb, the best advice when visiting a nursery is to taste a leaf, or at the very least rub your fingers over the leaves enjoy the scent. If there is no scent, there is no flavor. There are also many ornamental oreganos. Don’t dismiss them; they can be very attractive plants for the herb garden.

Here are some of the real oreganos.

O. vulgare – Wild Marjoram
This is the herb most often sold in garden centers as oregano. Unless you like its pretty purple flowers, which are often used in dried arrangements, don’t bother. The leaves are pretty much tasteless. This is the only reliably hardy oregano for Wisconsin. Doesn’t that just figure?

O. x majoricum – Italian (aka: Sicilian)
Italian or Sicilian Oregano is a hybrid of sweet marjoram with wild marjoram. It is also known as Hardy Sweet Marjoram, but it is only hardy to zone 7. Both Therese Meissler of Shady Acres Herb Farm and Susan Belsinger recommend Italian Oregano as a favorite in cooking. This is THE oregano to use in Italian recipes that require simmering, such as in marinara sauces. Its flavor is the combination of its parents warm and spicy, yet sweet and fragrant.

O. onites – Pot Marjoram
According to Art Tucker, this oregano has been in and out of the herb trade in the United States over the last 50 years. It is a very flavorful oregano, but apparently its finicky tenderness and cultural requirements have limited its staying power.

O. vulgare ‘Aureum – Golden Oregano
Golden Oregano is a favorite garden specimen because of its decorative yellow foliage. Use this oregano as an ornamental. Use the flowers in dried arrangements.

O. vulgare ‘Aureum crispum (aka: golden crisp)
Pat Crocker in her little book, Oregano, 2005 Herb of the Year, recommends using the small, round, crinkled lemon yellow leaves of this oregano for snipping into dishes as a garnish at the end of cooking, because of its mild flavor.

O. vulgare subspecies Hirtum – True Greek Oregano
This small growing oregano is an excellent in pizza and tomato sauces, herb blends, meats, shellfish and eggplant dishes. It has a very distinctive flavor. The leaves are green and are slightly hairy (hence its species name) and pointed. The flowers are white.

O. dictamis – Dittany of Crete
This attractive little herb is a prostrate subshrub with arching stems of woolly, gray-white leaves. Tiny pink flowers within large purple bracts are produced in pendant heads during summer. This is an ornamental oregano. Richters of Canada will introduce Zorba Red and Zorba White this year in celebration of the Herb of the Year. These are ornamental oreganos.

Therese Mieseler of Shady Acres Herb Farm offers 14 real oreganos and two wanna-be oreganos Puerto Rican Oregano (Plectranthus sp. ) and Mexican Oregano (Lippia graveolens ) in her catalog.

Like all Mediterranean herbs, oreganos grow best in full sun in well-drained soil.
Although several of the oreganos can overwinter in Wisconsin, none but O. vulgare are reliably hardy here. Plants can be potted up and brought inside during the winter.

All oreganos dislike winter wet and poor air circulation and this is what usually does the poor plants in. Propagate oregano by root divisions in the spring or take cuttings. You can also grow oregano from seed. The seeds are very tiny. Don’t cover them with soil as they need light to germinate. The seeds germinate best when kept at a temperature of 70 degrees.

Harvesting and Uses
Harvest the oreganos and sweet marjoram just as the plants begin to bud. This will keep the plants from getting rangy. You should be able to harvest leaves until the first frost, if outdoors, or all year long if you are growing your plants indoors. Although, like most herbs, marjoram and oregano tastes better when used fresh, they dry well and retain much of their flavor. Dry the cuttings away from sunlight to preserve the color and flavor. When completely dry, remove the leaves from the stems and store leaves whole in airtight containers. Crumble the leaves when ready to use to release the herbs’ essential oils.

Sweet Marjoram
The ancient Greeks used sweet marjoram medicinally. They also believed that this gentle herb was a favorite of the goddess of love, Aphrodite. Greek couples often wore crowns of sweet marjoram when they married and marjoram wreaths were laid on the dead to ensure they went to a happy life in the next world. Legend had it that if you anointed yourself with sweet marjoram before sleeping, you would dream of your future spouse. In medieval times marjoram was grown in monastery gardens. In England it was popular in Tudor and Stuart knot gardens. The herbalist Gerard said that “the leaves boiled in water, and the decoction drunke, easeth such as are given to overmuch sighing.

Sweet marjoram is an antispasmodic, calmative, carminative, diaphoretic, expectorant, stomachic and tonic. Today’s herbalists use an infusion of the fresh herb to calm upset stomachs and for indigestion, headaches, colic, and nervous complaints, as well as for coughs and other respiratory ailments. An infusion of the flowers is said to prevent seasickness and to have a calming effect. An infusion of the herb when gargled or drunk helps a sore throat, as does a cloth soaked in a warm decoction and wrapped around the neck. Add a decoction of marjoram essential oil to a bath to soak away tension and either macerate the herb in oil or use the essential with a carrier oil as a rub for muscular, nervous and rheumatic pains.

In medieval times marjoram was used as a strewing herb. It was also used for making sweet bags, potpourri and sweet washing waters for the table. It was also rubbed over wooden furniture to clean it and give a spicy scent.

In the kitchen you’ll find sweet marjoram in oil and vinegar salad dressings, Italian and Greek dishes and as a German sausage seasoning. Along with parsley, thyme and bay, marjoram is an essential part of a bouquet garni. Use it with pork, veal or roast lamb, in stuffings, soups, stews, egg dishes and cheese dishes. Use it on pasta, fish, grilled meats and in tomato-based sauces. Add it to melted butter as an unusual garnish on vegetables.

Because of the confusion between the oreganos and sweet marjoram and because of their similar chemical components both are used in many of the same ways in cooking and medicinally. Infusions of the leaves are also used for indigestion, coughs and headaches. Chew an oregano leaf or rub on a drop of essential oil for temporary relief of a toothache.

In the kitchen, the powerful flavor of oregano comes through very well when dried, but marjoram, which is more delicate, is best added fresh at the end of cooking. Oregano also enhances egg and cheese dishes and tomato sauces. Add it to yeast breads and marinated vegetables. Oreganos also combine well with those of garlic, thyme, parsley, and olive oil.

I hope that you have taken the opportunity to grow some new oregano varieties this year and that you are enjoying this most versatile 2005 herb of the year.