Growing Sweet Marjoram: Oregano's Demure Little Sister
May 15, 2018
Sweet marjoram is an herbaceous perennial that's often overshadowed—in flavor as well as notoriety—by its close relative, true oregano (Origanum vulgare). While it's often compared to oregano, sweet marjoram has its own distinct flavor and aromatic attributes.
If you're a culinary genius, or just pretending to be, you'll definitely want both in your spice cabinet and in your herb garden. You'll also want to get a few nice dairy goats, but we'll get into that later.
Sweet Marjoram's History and Origins
Sweet marjoram is also known as knotted marjoram, and because it's called oregano in some countries, we recommend that you verify it by its Latin name, Origanum majorana. Sweet marjoram and just plain "marjoram" are interchangeable.
Many of those same countries refer to oregano as "wild marjoram," but we're going to refrain from ranting about confusing monikers. The sun's shining, and we've had plenty of vitamin D and box wine today.
Sweet Marjoram originated in eastern Mediterranean regions, North Africa, and southern Turkey, where it was often grown between almond and olive trees. The Greeks associated marjoram and true oregano with Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, and considered the plants symbolic of happiness and tranquility. No wonder; marjoram was used in beer brewing before the discovery of hops, and was used as a popular wine flavoring.
Marjoram in Herbal Medicine
Origanum majorana has many of the same constituents as does true oregano and similar uses in the realm of herbalism.
Early Mediterranean, North African, Anatolian and Asian cultures used sweet marjoram as an antidote to poison, and to treat convulsions, headaches, stress, and respiratory issues. It's still used today for gastrointestinal issues, and in poultices to treat inflammation, muscle pain, and arthritis.
Like true oregano, marjoram is a proven antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal and antimicrobial, cleaning both wounds and surfaces from pathogens. It's been used to prevent or reduce the symptoms of several diseases:
- E. Coli
- Common cold virus
- Typhoid fever
Marjoram has many other traditional uses, either as a salve, tea, poultice or in massage oils:
- Bowel problems, from constipation and gas to diarrhea
- Relieve stomach cramps
- Reduce nausea
- Increase saliva and digestive enzymes
- Bolster appetite
Marjoram, with its sweeter, milder flavor, is often considered a more palatable alternative than oregano for use in teas.
As with all alternative medications, we recommend consulting with your physician before using concentrated herbs for medicinal treatments. Pregnant or nursing women, small children, and pets should take extra care when using this or other herbs.
Sweet Marjoram in the Garden
Marjoram usually grows to a height of 24" to 36", with a span of about 18 to 20 inches. It has medium-green, sometimes grayish ovate leaves (1/4" to 1/2" long) are covered in short, fine fuzz.
As with most plants in the Lamiaceae clan, marjoram's leaves grow in alternating pairs from square-shaped stems.
Flowers and Bloom Time: Marjoram blooms mid-summer in showy, pink-to-lavender clusters at the end of delicate stems. If you're not growing this herb specifically for its leaves, allow it to fully flower for a charming display of blooms that attract beneficial insects.
Companion Plants: Marjoram, like true oregano, doesn't have any enemies in the garden and is thought to enhance the flavor of brassicas.
How To Grow Sweet Marjoram from Seed
Like most plants in the mint family, Origanum majorana is very easy to grow. Start with properly-stored fresh seeds for your best shot at a prolific crop.
USDA Hardiness Zones: Marjoram is grown as a perennial in zones 7 to 11, and is usually grown as an annual in zones 5 and 6. This herb makes a great container plant, and in cooler regions can be placed in a sunny, warm window indoors for year-round enjoyment.
Marjoram isn't quite as hardy as its close relative, oregano, and will grow best when temperatures don't drop below 15°F.
Soil Quality: Once established, marjoram will do well in average soils, but to get them started, add in a some aged compost. It's not too picky about its pH range but does best between 6.5 and 7.5. If you need to fudge its soil quality a bit, lean towards alkalinity up to 8.5 pH.
Sunlight Preferences: Sweet marjoram prefers full sun, but will grow in partial shade.
Watering Requirements: Don't allow marjoram seeds and seedlings to dry out for at least the first two or three weeks after emergence. Once they're well-established, allow the soil to dry out in between waterings.
Planting Indoors or Out: When seeds are as tiny as sweet marjoram's, we recommend starting them indoors about six weeks prior to last spring frost on a seed mat, using a fine seedling mix.
Transplant or direct sow outside three weeks after last spring frost, when soil temperatures reach 70°F or above. Cultivate your soil to remove plant debris and clumps, creating a smooth, moist surface.
If you plan to direct sow your seeds in the fall, do so about three or four weeks prior to the first frost.
Seed Depth: Tiny marjoram seeds require sunlight to emerge. Gently press them into damp soil, and leave them uncovered. Mist the seeds and soil with a hand sprayer.
Seed Spacing: Plant or thin marjoram 15 to 20 inches apart.
Germination: Under ideal conditions, your marjoram seeds will germinate in 7 to 14 days.
Maintaining your Sweet Marjoram Plants
Marjoram can be slow out of the gate, but once it's taken off, it doesn't take much to keep it happy. It's most aromatic and flavorful in its first three or four growing seasons, but beyond that, you might want to replace them from cuttings, or from new seed plantings.
Pests and Diseases: Marjoram is moderately susceptible to mint rust (Puccinia menthae), spider mites, thrips, aphids, and cutworms, though it responds well to natural and artificial antifungal and insecticide treatments.
Fertilizing: Garden-grown marjoram doesn't require fertilization once it's established, but container-grown marjoram should be kept in a nutrient-rich substrate. Apply a balanced liquid fertilizer about twice a year for optimal health.
Trimming: Pinch leaves and flower buds at the ends of the plant's stalks to encourage fuller plants with more branches. Cut back marjoram to within a couple inches of its base in fall, to reduce woodiness and legginess when it grows back the following spring.
Harvesting and Storage: Once marjoram plants have grown at least six inches in height, you can begin harvesting. Collect leaves and flowers as part of your pinching and trimming routine, but note that the oil content in marjoram leaves is strongest when the plant's flowers are in the budding phase.
Dry your marjoram leaves in a dehydrator, or suspend leafy stalks upside-down in a warm, dark, well-ventilated area. Strip the leaves and leaf stems from the central stalks, and store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry cupboard. Fresh marjoram should be used within 2 to 3 days of harvesting, as it doesn't freeze well.
Cooking with Sweet Marjoram
Marjoram is a versatile culinary herb that enhances pretty much any savory dish. Use it with veggies, meat, fish, and cheese recipes. Mix it into store-bought or fresh ricotta for Italian dishes, or sprinkle it fresh on sliced tomato sandwiches.
It's often used in mushroom recipes and in clam chowder, butter reductions, and marinaras.
Marjoram is often compared to oregano, but its flavor is sweeter and milder, and its spicy undertones are more understated than that of its "big brother." It's said to have a mild flowery-citrus flavor with a touch of pine, with an aroma akin to basil and thyme.
It's a common seasoning for smoked or aged German sausages, though, in most recipes, marjoram is best added late in the cooking process to preserve its flavor.
Sweet Marjoram Recipes
Following are some flavorful examples of marjoram in action:
Sweet Marjoram Lamb with Summer Leaves and Citrus: Nobody does lamb like New Zealanders, and while this recipe allows you to substitute oregano for sweet marjoram, lamb retains its delicate flavors when paired with the sweet subtlety of today's starring herb.
Marjoram Shallot Butter: Prepare this spreadable "squeee" to top off home-baked bread, or to slip under the skin of roasting-pan bound poultry. Or just eat it straight when nobody's looking.
Roasted Pumpkin, Marjoram, and Blue Cheese Frittata: You might as well make your funeral plans now because once you taste this, you might actually die of happiness and take the express bus to heaven.
Red Snapper with Lemon Marjoram Butter: Swap in your favorite fish if red snapper isn't available. Marjoram is great with any seafood recipe that calls for oregano.
20-Minute Marjoram and Tomato Chicken Skewers: Grill these for a summertime crowd-pleaser, or roast them sans skewers anytime.
Herbed Chevre Spread: Have you brought home those goats yet? No? GET ON IT. Right now. Seriously.
Start with the Best Seeds
You don't want to miss out on this season's sweet marjoram crop, and we don't want to miss out on the opportunity to serve you. Seed Needs has been around since 2006, dedicating ourselves to excellent customer service and sales of high-quality, non-GMO seeds. We order our seeds from producers of healthy parent stock, and only keep enough seeds on hand (kept in a climate-controlled facility) to sell within a single season. This helps us ensure high germination rates, happy customers, and healthy gardens.Contact us if you have any questions about our products, or if you're interested in custom-packaged wedding favors or quantity orders. Heck, just reach out to say hello, suggest a variety to add to our catalog, or to share your favorite sweet marjoram recipe!