We grow several kinds of herbs in our gardens. We grow them for their culinary uses, their attractiveness in the landscape and as nectar and pollen sources – especially for our honeybees. Oregano is wonderful for all three purposes.
The oregano family of herbs is quite large with dozens of named varieties. All the oreganos are also members of the even larger mint family. Most oregano varieties originated in the Mediterranean region and the name oregano comes from ancient Greek for “joy of the mountain”.
Some oreganos are grown for their culinary uses while others are grown primarily as ornamentals. Useful culinary varieties include common oregano (Origanum vulgare), Italian oregano ( Origanum x Majorcan ), and Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum). The Greek oregano is quite strong and is what you will most likely find as a dried herb in the grocery store. The Italian variety is a cross of common oregano and marjoram and is a bit milder and sweeter – a natural for tomato-based dishes.
Most oregano, including the three mentioned above, will be perennial in our area. The plants will be woody shrubs to about two feet with small grey green to green leaves depending on variety. The plants will do best in very well drained soil with a pH around neutral and full to part sun exposure. The plants will not do well with “wet feet” so growing in a raised bed or a large container may be advisable. The plant can also be grown indoors in a sunny location. Oregano can be started from seed, however, the seeds are as fine as dust and the seedlings may not come true to type. Oregano will also self-seed in the garden resulting in new seedlings here and there. As with purchased seed, these new seedlings may not be exactly like the parent plant. To be certain of getting a specific variety, it is best to begin with a certified plant. Additional identical plants are relatively easy to propagate from stem cuttings. Cuttings can be rooted indoors in water or a soilless medium. I’ve also been relatively successful propagating cuttings directly back into the garden. Take 4-inch cuttings in the fall after it gets cool, strip the bottom 2/3 of the cutting, dip in rooting hormone and push into the soil up to the top 1/3. Water in well and water periodically if the soil gets dry. This won’t result in 100% take but it is fast and economical and usually results in enough new plants to make it worthwhile. This technique also works well for other woody herbs and many ornamentals and fruits. Over time, oregano plants tend to get “leggy” with long bare stems. Pruning older stems back to the ground encourages the plant to produce new tender stems and leaves. Cutting back the flower blooms on the plant will also generate more fresh growth but eliminate the wonderful pollinator food source.
Oregano can be used fresh or dried. The leaves of fresh oregano can be striped from the tough stems or the whole stem can be used as a bouquet garni with the stem removed from the dish before serving. Oregano is just as often if not more often used as a dried herb. Stems can be hung to dry for a week or two until the leaves are completely dry or leaves can be stripped to dry flat on a paper towel or in a dehydrator. Store dried oregano in a tightly sealed container in a cool dark place. It is best to refresh the stock after six months.
Oregano is not usually consumed in sufficient quantity to be considered a significant food, but it does have several healthy minerals and vitamins as well as dietary fiber. In addition, some of the compounds in oregano have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects.
There are many thousands of recipes calling for the use of oregano particularly in Italian, Greek, Turkish and Mexican cuisines. Fresh oregano can make a great pesto, or a chimichurri sauce as well as add snap to a vegetable dish. Finely chopped fresh oregano is a nice salad addition. Oregano is a natural in combination with tomatoes for pasta or pizza or soups. It adds wonderful flavor to olive oil and vinaigrettes and breads. It is a common ingredient in lots of hearty soups and stews like chili as well as a flavoring for a host of other meat and seafood dishes.
Whether for cuisine, beauty or feeding beneficial insects, it is well worth having a bit of oregano in the garden.
Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor