Italian cuisine simply wouldn’t be the same without the heady aroma and complex flavors of dried oregano leaves.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is a member of the mint family. Like other mints, oregano is a hardy perennial herb that has a place in any plot or container garden. Oregano is also known as wild marjoram, being a close cousin to sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana). The two herbs are interchangeable in cooking.
The variety of oregano grown determines its flavor. The most commonly sold variety, Origanum vulgare, is relatively bland, as are O. unites and O. syriacum. For the best culinary flavor, try planting one of these oregano varieties:
Origanum v. ‘Kent Beauty’ has a lovely trailing growth habit, making it perfect for hanging gardens and containers.
How to grow oregano
Oregano prefers hot, dry, sunny locations and well-drained soil. Oregano can be grown indoors or out and it performs well in containers. While plants can be started from seed, it is usually easier to propagate oregano using cuttings and root division. In cold areas, oregano is grown as an annual. In spring, seeds can be started indoors and then transplanted outside after the last frost date. Plants should be spaced 12 - 18 inches apart in full sun. Water culinary varieties moderately. Ornamental varieties will need little or no water.
Oregano thrives in soil with a pH between 6.0 - 9.0, making it an excellent choice in areas with alkaline soil. Fertilizer is generally not needed. Plants can grow from 8 inches to 2-1/2 feet in height and width, creating a bushy shrub or a trailing growth, depending on the variety. Oregano flowers are bluish-purple or white.
Oregano benefits from regular pruning. While plants are still small, pinch off tops down to a leaf node to encourage a bushier growth and to prevent legginess. In winter, established plants can be cut back to ground level. Since oregano is food, think twice about using any chemical pesticides.
Oregano pests & diseases
Aphids, spider mites and fungal diseases can all cause problems on oregano. Ensuring good air flow between plants and proper watering make a big difference in oregano health. Too much water can cause root disease. Allow plants to dry out between waterings. Monitor plants for aphids. Aphids can be dislodged with a strong stream of water from the hose. Planting nasturtiums nearby can entice aphids away from oregano. Aphids prefer nasturtiums, so you get more oregano! Row covers can also be used to protect oregano from many pests.
Harvesting & storing oregano
Leaves of oregano provide the best flavor if harvested before the plant goes to flower. Simply grab a handful of stems and cut below your hand. Then, rinse the cut bundle to remove any dust, insects or microorganisms, shake off the excess water, pat dry and gently wrap the bundle with a rubber band. Hang in a cool, dry, shaded area until completely dry, just as you would with lavender, lemon balm, and many other herbs. Unlike basil and rosemary, oregano really gets its flavor punch during the drying process, so fresh use isn’t recommended. Once the leaves have dried out completely, they can be removed from the stems by rolling them between your hands over a sheet of wax paper. Store in a dark, dry location in an airtight container. (I use spice jars that used to hold something else and that have been thoroughly washed and dried.) Properly dried and stored oregano can last for a year.
Oregano as folk medicine
Oregano has been used in folk medicine for a very long time, but there is no scientific proof that it actually helps in traditional treatments for respiratory, digestive, or nervous disorders. Research is being conducted, however, on oregano’s usefulness as an antibacterial and against liver cancer.
In most gardens, oregano can continue for several years, self-seeding it’s deliciousness and pretty flowers with minimal effort and water.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!