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will the real oregano please stand up?

I WANTED TO PLANT OREGANO some years ago, as I expect many gardeners do, for a fresh supply to cook with. That may sound like a simple desire, though fulfilling it was anything but. The plant marked as “Oregano” at the garden center grew lush with little care, a low, green mound with a pleasant aroma if touched. But come harvest time, the oregano leaves tasted like peppery dirt, if that good, and the plant had spread in every direction I did not intend for it. Not exactly what I had in mind for a seasoning with my homegrown tomatoes, or a good garden subject. Was it poor (or too-rich) soil? The wrong location? Improper care? No: Wrong plant.

Called “the mystery plant of the herb world” by The Rodale Herb Book, “oregano” is the common name for a small multitude of plants that are mostly useless in the kitchen. Among them are many true oreganos, in the genus Origanum, and also many plants that aren’t. Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens) is a relative of lemon verbena, not oregano. Cuban oregano (Coleus amboinicus) is a succulent that tastes and smells somewhat like oregano and makes a good houseplant. It is used like oregano in Cuban cuisine. Italian oregano thyme, a member of the genus Thymus, also has the familiar oregano scent.

Among the true oreganos there are choices for great beauty, like O. vulgare ‘Aureum,’ a golden-leaved form. (My sorry plant was probably just plain O. vulgare—not even pretty like the golden kind.) Sweet marjoram, a kind of oregano known as O. majorana, is more the stuff of French cuisine, and an excellent culinary herb. Pot marjoram, O. onites, is also savory-flavored.

But if you want to cook with the classic oregano taste, you want to try Greek oregano, O. heracleoticum, which is a pungent species, and one of the best for strong, true oregano taste, as is seedless oregano, O. viride. For culinary use, the Herb Society of America recommends Origanum x majoricum, a hybrid between Italian oregano and hardy sweet marjoram, and profiles all the cousins and taste-alikes mentioned here.

As with many herbs, the true oreganos will be most flavorful just before the flowers open, when the maximum concentration of oils is in the leaves. Bunch springs together with a rubber band, and hang them in a dark, dry place to dry, or use fresh.

And tell me, which “oregano” do you grow and cook with?

UPDATED 7/1/08: The Serious Eats blog picked up this post, and the oregano conversation continues there.

  1. margaret says:

    A NOTE ON COMMENT WONKY-NESS:
    Since our server migration this week, all of your comments go straight to spam for a bit till I dig you out. Sorry, but that’s the price to pay temporarily for switching things to a more robust hosting system, which we needed to accommodate all of you, and we will get it fixed.
    Your comment won’t appear right away is all. Working on it…trying…
    :-(

  2. Jane E-P says:

    Before I comment on today’s topic, Margaret, I’d just like to say that your site is FABULOUS and absolutely a daily stop for me. That’s coming from someone who has no soil, much less a garden. I’ve got half-day sun on half a puny balcony, which I fill with planted pots of various sizes and hope it’s enough to get (puny) flowers someday. Sad, ain’t it? In desperation, I’ve adopted the pix of your garden as my virtual one. So far it’s working to relieve my withdrawal symptoms — there was a time when I had and happily worked gardens –, and I thank you!
    I wanted to shed some light on ‘Sal’s Favorite” oregano, referenced by commenter Paige above. I’m quite sure that’s Sal Gilbertie, one of my town’s most esteemed citizens and a nice guy to boot. He and his family have a retail nursery/garden shop in Westport, CT, and several years ago he began growing every spice imaginable on his wholesale farm in nearby Easton. I believe that ‘Gilbertie’s Herb Gardens’ is now responsible for a ridiculously high percentage of all the herbs sold in the USA. His books are almost as good as yours ;^)
    Thanks again for your glorious pictures and such helpful, beautifully written prose. Even us (or is it ‘we’?)deprived souls love it.

  3. Kitt says:

    I was happy to find a huge Greek oregano plant in the abandoned vegetable garden I recently acquired. (Along with some chives, sage and thyme.) I’ll be sure to harvest some bunches before it blooms.

  4. High Valley Farmgirl says:

    The stuff I planted years ago made a beautiful ground cover on the hillside by my garden but was always a big loser in the sauce pot. So now I know why. Thanks!

  5. Karen T says:

    I had oregano in my last garden and was missing it the other day (when I had to buy some at the grocery story), which left me thinking I need to plant it again. I had no idea it was a complicated matter! I must have just gotten lukcy at the great Napa nursery I no doubt bought the last one from. Thanks for the tip, Margaret.

  6. Terri Clark says:

    I grow the Greek oregano in my front southern exposed dry garden where all my Mediterranian and silver foliage plants thrive. That one plant has spread like wild fire despite never receiving a drop of water except what the Rain Gods send. It can be so invasive- and what better revenge than eating it- but has to be kept in check.Seems to so love the nooks and crannies and zero moisture.

  7. CityGarden says:

    I don’t change my wild Greek origanum, it’s the best origanum in Greece. Next week I will go to my plot and I think that I can harvest my plants.

  8. Maggie Keeler says:

    Hi~ I just bought an oregano, ‘Sal’s Choice’ (Origanum syriacum ‘Maru’) this morning from a local nursery because:
    1. I recognized the Gilbertie nursery stick tag and I’ve had good luck with their herb plants for a number of years…
    2. I know who Sal Gilbertie is because I have most of his books, so if this oregano is his favorite, I’ll try his recommendation…
    3. I need an oregano to go into my new whiskey barrel culinary herb garden that I am planting by my steps so that I WILL USE my cooking herbs. I have a border of herbs in my potager, but it’s a distance from the house, so I don’t go out there for herbs every time that I should…
    4. The tag says: that it does not spread [I’ve had invasive oreganos in my other gardens]; that it is hardy {some oreganos have not survived our WV winters]; and it has great oregano flavor [I’ve had some tasteless oreganos too].
    4. It was on sale @ 50% off !

  9. margaret says:

    Welcome, Maggie–and I love this thought process. Especially the part about herbs near the door (which I always fail to do, so stupid) and the 50% off. :)

  10. chigal says:

    I’m 90 percent sure mine is Greek, as it’s very oregano flavored and the pics look the same. It is so strong, it practically burns your tongue when you eat it fresh. I read that it’s more flavorful when dry so I dried some, last fall. PHOO! Whatever it is, it’s potent. I wish all herbs were this easy to grow — I bought it as a little seedling several years ago, and now it just needs dividing every few years. It produces seeds like crazy, too, after the great black wasps have done their thing all summer.

    Do you have any tips on growing other herbs? I’m always wondering what I could be doing to make them healthier and more long-lived. They come too near death by the end of winter, inside, so I never know whether I should start new ones. And then they spring back to life, and off we go again. I feel my luck is bound to run out eventually.

  11. Amy says:

    Hooray!! I bought oregano for the first time yesterday and just happened to buy the Greek oregano. Thank goodness I picked the right one! Like Maggie, I’m planting a half barrel near my front steps. I love to be able to scoot outside and snip some fresh herbs when I need them for the kitchen.

  12. Maggie says:

    Hi~ I left a comment almost a year ago (July,’08) about my new oregano, ‘Sal’s Choice’, so I thought I’d send an update. The plant survived our winter in good shape in my half-barrel (I’ve found that my container grown plants often perish, even when the same plant in the ground doesn’t) and has become a nice, green mound of fragrant, tasty foliage.

    Even though I have the Greek oregano in my potager, I usually use this one in my red pasta sauces and just yesterday in a casserole of WW rigatoni, grated cheeses, cream sauce, and sausage with a thick-layer of oregano, garlic, savory and thyme-flavored bread crumbs on top. It was even better today for lunch! I will recommend this oregano to anyone, esp. if you only have room for 1 kind.

    Your biggest problem will be finding one to buy, but Gilbertie’s Herbs homesite does have a nursery locater feature. Unfortunately, they don’t ship. I’m getting ready to divide mine, because it’s getting too large for the barrel and is crowding my favorite lemon thyme and salad burnet too much. I’ll give the division to my friend Barb for her herb garden and to propagate for her nursery. For anyone living in the Gettysburg or south-central PA area, I recommend Alloway Gardens of Littlestown as a source of healthy, reasonable herbs and perennials and also sage advice on growing and using herbs.
    Maggie

  13. Beverly Wheeler says:

    Margaret love this site-now I am not sure which oregano I have planted-but to be on safe side-am going to get greek oregano. Thank You for another valuable tip.

  14. Dolores says:

    I prefer Greek Oregano for sure but my sister and I have found all the others that weren’t so tasty–hard to tell the true oregano–marjoram, etc. Thanks for the help!

  15. mindy arbo says:

    diane kochilas of greek cooking fame, has an on-site markt of wonderful greek items grown in greece. oregano is one of them.

  16. Dianne says:

    Not realizing the difference in oregano, I opted to plant Italian Oregano because of the pretty blue blooms. This was several years ago. I dried it for a couple of years and it was not what I was in love with taste-wise. Then I discovered Greek Oregano and have been growing that lovely stuff ever since. What REAL oregano should taste and smell like. I relegated the Italian blue blooms to the rock garden where it is happy.

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