Oregano is a shrub-like herb with multiple-branched stems, growing either upright or in a creeping manner, depending on the variety. It can grow as tall as three feet in height. The leaves are narrow and pinnate, or arrow-shaped, and have a soft, fuzzy texture. They grow in pairs, well-spaced out along tender stems. As the plant grows, the more mature stems become woody at the base. In the late summer, small white flowers bloom from the flower spikes (bracts) at the top of the stems. Typically, Oregano is harvested just before the flowers bloom, when the flavor and aroma is at its peak. Oregano is said to have a ‘balsamic’ flavor; a combination of mint (a closely related herb), thyme, and rosemary. The taste is strong and somewhat bitter.
Oregano is available year-round.
Oregano is botanically classified as Origanum vulgare, and is often referred to as “Wild Marjoram.” While marjoram is also in the genus Origanum, the two are different species. The major differences between the two herbs can be found in the compounds contained in each plant’s volatile (or “essential”) oils. Oregano has long been used as a culinary and medicinal herb in Europe and more recently worldwide.
Oregano is a good source of iron, manganese, vitamin K, fiber and calcium. It also contains omega-3 fatty acids The two main compounds in essential oils obtained from Oregano are thymol and carvacrol, which are the primary natural chemicals that give Oregano its specific flavor profile. The compounds have strong anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Phytonutrients in Oregano give the herb four times more antioxidant power than blueberries. For the best health benefits, Oregano is often brewed into a tea or the essential oils are extracted from the leaves for use in supplements, diffusers and some cosmetics.
Oregano is a traditional Mediterranean herb and plays a prominent role in Greek and Italian cuisine. Pair fresh and dried oregano with cured olives, sheep's milk cheeses, tomatoes, pork, lamb, potatoes, pasta and rices. It is an ideal aromatic for meat stews and can compliment olive oil sauces for grilled and baked fish. Keep cool and dry until ready to use.
To the ancient Romans and Greeks, Oregano was seen as a symbol for happiness and joy. Wreaths of Oregano sprigs were worn as crowns by the bride and groom on their wedding day; the herb was thought to bring blessings of happiness to the couple. In other folk remedies from Europe to Australia, Oregano was used as a cure-all for sickness, digestive troubles, detoxification and maintaining good heart health.
Oregano is native to the Mediterranean and the region stretching east towards Asia. The botanical name Origanum vulgare comes from the Greek oros for “mountain” and ganos for “joy,” named for its favorite growth habit – the warm, dry mountainsides of Greece. Oregano was cultivated in France since the Middle Ages and is a major component of Mediterranean cuisine. The herb was unknown to Americans until the 20th century when soldiers returning from World War I brought Oregano back from Italy. There are many plants that are referred to as “Oregano” because they contain high amounts of carvacrol, which is responsible for the flavor profile indicative of Oregano. It is estimated that there are over forty different species, and countless hybrids of Oregano due to the wide variability of the species and its ability to cross pollinate very easily.