Back before cannabis became a legit commercial commodity, we had a thing called "ditch weed." Your high school dealer, likely clad in an Ozzy tee-shirt and backward ball cap, would sell baggies of "shake"—a mishmash of seeds and desiccated leaves—behind the gym during lunch period. Sometimes, he'd cut it with a different kind of herb —oregano— from his parents' spice drawer, in order to add volume to his product.
Not cool, bro.
The good news is that oregano is also called the "pizza herb," so if you did manage to get the munchies, well, you were good to go.
If your cooking repertoire is limited to takeout pizza, pasta with cheap, pre-made marinara sauce, or the occasional omelet, then oregano should be the first herb you buy for your spice cabinet. Even Chef Boyardee's canned "pasta" can become palatable with a pinch or two of oregano (and a LOT of wine).
We actually wonder why Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel didn't sing about it; parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, and oregano are among our most favorite staple seasonings... and not necessarily in that order.
Speaking of pizza, we need a cheesy announcer to herald this subheader:
Oregano Through the Ages!
Like most culinary herbs, Oregano originated in the Mediterranean. Originally cultivated by the Greeks, Origanum vulgare is often called Greek oregano, Mediterranean oregano, Italian oregano, or "true" oregano, and its name translates to "joy of the mountain."
Don't confuse Origanum vulgare with Mexican oregano, which is a similar-tasting yet unrelated plant in the verbena family. Oregano itself is a member of the mint (Lamiaceae) family.
Oregano, which is sometimes called "wild marjoram", is closely related to sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana), though the two plants differ in their aroma and flavor, and they shouldn't be interchanged in your recipes. Oregano has a much stronger taste and tends to overpower recipes that call for the milder Origanum majorana.
While the oval, flat green leaves of these mint-family herbs are often confused for one another, each one has a distinct smell and flavor that sets it apart. Oregano tends to be pungent and spicy, while more mild marjoram is floral and woodsy.
Much of the lore surrounding oregano stems from its association with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Hippocrates used Origanum vulgare as an antiseptic, and American Spice notes that the ancient Greeks would anoint themselves with oregano oil so they would dream about their future spouse.
Other sources say that brides and grooms in Greece would wear wreaths of oregano, either because it was thought to elicit peace, bring good luck, or because it was thought to make men happy. It was also used as an offering at gravesites to soothe departed spirits.
Oregano as an Herbal Remedy
Oregano's two main components, carvacrol and thymol, are antibacterial and antimicrobial antioxidants known to treat or prevent several ailments, lending credence to oregano's value in traditional and contemporary herbal medicine. Some of its applications include:
- Immunity booster
- Toothache relief
- Improve cardiovascular health
- Cures nail fungus
- House cleaning solution additive
- Wound healing aid and antiseptic
Thymol and carvacrol are known to prevent infections by the following nasties:
- E. Coli
- Candida albicans
We know of a few people who add oregano oil to their livestock's feed to remove intestinal parasites, and there is some information out in the herbisphere about diluting a couple drops of oregano oil into another oil-based carrier to aid in human parasites, but chances are it won't get rid of the jerk your daughter's been dating.
Beekeepers have been using concentrated thymol as a natural varroa mite prevention for several years. Oregano honey, by the way, is delicious, and beekeepers often "set" their hives near crops of oregano to give their honey its distinct flavor.
Oregano essential oil, when used according to label instructions, is generally considered safe. Pregnant or nursing women, small children, and pet owners should take care with all herbal concentrates, and we recommend consulting with a physician before using any herbal concoctions for medicinal purposes.
Growing True Oregano from Seed
Oregano requires full sun and well-draining soil. In some areas, it will stay green through the winter. It's a hardy evergreen perennial down to USDA Zone 6, though in Zone 5 and 6 it will likely go dormant late fall and grow back with a vengeance in the spring. It's best kept in pots and brought indoors in colder regions.
Origanum vulgare does make a fantastic indoor container herb regardless of your hardiness zone, and many gardeners have had success maintaining oregano plants in a sunny window. Lining a closet with aluminum foil, playing Iron Butterfly in a continuous loop, and installing grow lights for the purpose of oregano cultivation, however, is not a requirement to grow a healthy bumper crop.
Oregano plants can grow about 18" wide and two feet tall. It's an upright-growing plant with small, white to pink flowers that bloom on the tips of the plant's square stalks mid-to-late summer. Bees and other pollinators absolutely go nuts over oregano, and it's fun to plant it where you have a great vantage point for watching bumblebees, honeybees, beneficial flies, and wasps come and go.
The herb's green to gray-green leaves are about 1/4" to 1 1/4" long, somewhat fuzzy, ovate, and very fragrant.
Soil and Water Preferences: Oregano does very well in moderate soil, so unless it's depleted or particularly clay-laden, don't worry about adding compost. It's not a heavy drinker, being native to dry Grecian hillsides. Oregano makes a great plant for marginal areas and garden spaces on the outer edges of your irrigation zones and makes a nice addition to rock gardens.
When to Plant: Plant oregano outdoors about six weeks before last frost or transplant starts outdoors when your soil temperatures reach 70°F and your seedlings have grown at least two sets of true leaves.
Planting Depth: Oregano seeds require sunlight to germinate. Gently press seeds on the surface of fine, moist soil, and keep them watered with a hand mister until they're well-established.
Seed Spacing: Plant or thin 8" to 10" apart.
Maintenance: Trimming back oregano anytime during the growing season helps encourage new growth and minimizes legginess. Keeping oregano trimmed to a compact, mounding shape makes it an attractive edible ornamental for indoor gardens or outdoor container plantings.
Oregano plants can live ten years or more but usually fade in flavor and aroma by their third year.
Harvesting: Oregano leaves, which are best harvested right before flowering, are more potent when dried than they are fresh. Strip leaves from their stems and dry them in a food dehydrator, or suspend whole stems in a dry area with lots of ventilation. Oregano flowers are also edible and can be processed and used along with the leaves.
Pests and Diseases: Oregano is susceptible to spider mites and aphids. Simply spray them angrily with a hose, exclaiming "HA! TAKE THAT!" loudly enough to raise concern among your neighbors.
Oregano's Companion Plants: A lot of people get cute about planting oregano, garlic, and basil near their tomatoes, and calling it a "pizza garden". We're pretty cute, too, so we think it's a great idea; oregano is perhaps one of the most gregarious garden plants with no known enemies. It's proven to repel squash bugs and cucumber beetles, and some gardening guides claim that oregano increases humidity among its neighboring plants. Our advice is to plant oregano near any other plants with similar watering requirements, and have at it!
Everyone's got their grandma's favorite pasta sauce recipe, so we figured we'd find some not-so-obvious culinary uses for oregano. If your grandma's idea of comfort food involved plastic trays and microwaves, try this recipe and pass it off as your family secret.
Oregano is generally described as possessing a strongly aromatic, camphoraceous aroma and a slightly bitter, pungent flavor. This pungent flavor is composed of earthy/musty, green, hay and minty notes. The spice imparts a slightly astringent mouthfeel.
Here are some great recipes to help you get away from the microwave, and on your path to culinary greatness:
Oregano Marinade: This multipurpose recipe from Chowhound doubles as a salad dressing, and uses fresh oregano and thyme.
Garlic and Oregano Pesto: Donna at Whole Food Bellies needed to figure out how to put her bumper crop of oregano to good use, and she came up with this fantastic take on a Mediterranean standard.
Red Wine Oregano Pizza Sauce: Three Olives Branch (no, that's not a typo) shares their favorite recipe for pizza sauce, with some fantastic veggie topping ideas for those whose gardens are going off. Be sure to follow their link to their oregano garlic pizza dough recipe!
Greek Chicken with Lemon and Oregano: Chicken and oregano are a brilliant pairing. Emilie Raffa at The Clever Carrot walks you through this recipe in by-step detail, complete with mouth-watering photos and her favorite sides for this healthy dish.
Oil of Oregano: Homegrown in the Valley presents a simple method to create an oil-based (though not concentrated) oregano extract.
Oregano Tincture: Modern Hippie Health & Wellness has a lot of information on oregano's uses as a medicinal herb, with their own recipe for making an oregano infusion.
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