Oregano is a perennialherb, growing from 20-80 cm (7.9-31.5 in) tall, with opposite leaves 1-4 cm (0.39-1.57 in) long. The flowers are purple, 3-4 mm (0.12-0.16 in) long, produced in erect spikes. It is sometimes called wild marjoram, and its close relative, O. majorana, is known as sweet marjoram.
Used since the middle 18th century, oregano is derived from the Spanishorégano and Latinor?ganum via the Classical Greek (organon). This is a compound Greek term that consists of ? (óros) meaning "mountain", and (gános) meaning "brightness", thus, "brightness of the mountain".
Description and biology
Oregano is related to the herb marjoram, sometimes being referred to as wild marjoram. Oregano has purple flowers and spade-shaped, olive-green leaves. It is a perennial, although it is grown as an annual in colder climates, as it often does not survive the winter.
Oregano is planted in early spring, the plants being spaced 30 cm (12 in) apart in fairly dry soil, with full sun. Oregano will grow in a pH range between 6.0 (mildly acidic) and 9.0 (strongly alkaline), with a preferred range between 6.0 and 8.0. It prefers a hot, relatively dry climate, but does well in other environments.
Many subspecies and strains of oregano have been developed by humans over centuries for their unique flavours or other characteristics. Tastes range from spicy or astringent to more complicated and sweet. Simple oregano sold in garden stores as Origanum vulgare may have a bland taste and larger, less-dense leaves, and is not considered the best for culinary use, with a taste less remarkable and pungent. It can pollinate other more sophisticated strains, but the offspring are rarely better in quality.
The related species, Origanum onites (Greece, Turkey) and O. syriacum (West Asia), have similar flavours. A closely related plant is marjoram from Turkey, which differs significantly in taste though, because phenolic compounds are missing from its essential oil. Some varieties show a flavour intermediate between oregano and marjoram.
O. v. subsp. glandulosum (Desf.) Ietsw. - Tunisia, Algeria
O. v. subsp. gracile (K.Koch) Ietsw. (= O. tyttanthum) has glossy green leaves and pink flowers. It grows well in pots or containers, and is more often grown for added ornamental value than other oregano. The flavor is pungent and spicy. - Central Asia, Iran, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan.
O. v. subsp. hirtum (Link) Ietsw. - (Italian oregano, Greek oregano) is a common source of cultivars with a different aroma from those of O. v. gracile. Growth is vigorous and very hardy, with darker green, slightly hairy foliage. Generally, it is considered the best all-purpose culinary subspecies. - Greece, Balkans, Turkey, Cyprus
O. v. subsp. virens (Hoffmanns. & Link) Ietsw. - Morocco, Spain, Portugal, Balearic Islands, Canary Islands, Azores, Madeira
O. v. subsp. viridulum (Martrin-Donos) Nyman - widespread from Corsica to Nepal
O. v. subsp. vulgare - widespread across Europe + Asia from Ireland to China; naturalized in North America + Venezuela
'Greek Kaliteri' - O. v. subsp. hirtum strains/landraces, small, hardy, dark, compact, thick, silvery-haired leaves, usually with purple undersides, excellent reputation for flavor and pungency, as well as medicinal uses, strong, archetypal oregano flavor (Greekkaliteri: the best)
'Hot & Spicy' - O. v. subsp. hirtum strain
'Nana' - dwarf cultivar
Cultivars traded as Italian, Sicilian, etc. are usually hardy sweet marjoram (O. ×majoricum), a hybrid between the southern AdriaticO. v. subsp. hirtum and sweet marjoram (O. majorana). They have a reputation for sweet and spicy tones, with little bitterness, and are prized for their flavor and compatibility with various recipes and sauces.
Oregano is a culinary herb, used for the flavor of its leaves, which can be more flavorful when dried than fresh. It has an aromatic, warm, and slightly bitter taste, which can vary in intensity. Good-quality oregano may be strong enough almost to numb the tongue, but cultivars adapted to colder climates may have a lesser flavor. Factors such as climate, season, and soil composition may affect the aromatic oils present, and this effect may be greater than the differences between the various species of plants. Among the chemical compounds contributing to the flavour are carvacrol, thymol, limonene, pinene, ocimene, and caryophyllene.
Oregano's most prominent modern use is as the staple herb of Italian cuisine. Its popularity in the U.S. began when soldiers returning from World War II brought back with them a taste for the "pizza herb", which had probably been eaten in southern Italy for centuries. There, it is most frequently used with roasted, fried, or grilled vegetables, meat, and fish. Oregano combines well with spicy foods popular in southern Italy. It is less commonly used in the north of the country, as marjoram generally is preferred.
During the summer, generous amounts of dried oregano are often added as the aromatic and flavorful topping to a tomato and cucumber salad in Portugal, but it can be used to season meat and fish dishes as well.
The dried and ground leaves are most often used in Greece to add flavor to Greek salad, and is usually added to the lemon-olive oil sauce that accompanies fish or meat grills and casseroles.
Oregano essential oil in a clear glass vial
Oregano oil has been used in folk medicine over centuries. Oregano essential oil is extracted from the leaves of the oregano plant. Although oregano or its oil may be used as a dietary supplement, there is no clinical evidence to indicate that either has any effect on human health.
Drying of the plant material affects both quantity and distribution of volatile compounds, with methods using higher heat and longer drying times having greater negative impact. A sample of fresh whole plant material found to contain 33 g/kg dry weight (3.1 g/kg wet) decreased to below a third after warm-air convection drying. Much higher concentrations of volatile compounds are achieved towards the end of the growing season.
Other plants called "oregano"
Coleus amboinicus, known as Cuban oregano, orégano poleo ('pennyroyal oregano'), orégano francés ('French oregano'), Mexican mint, Mexican thyme, and many other names, is also of the mint family (Lamiaceae). It has large and somewhat succulent leaves. Common throughout the tropics, including Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, it is probably of eastern-hemisphere origin.
Lippia graveolens, Mexican oregano, known in Spanish as orégano cimarrón ('wild oregano'), is not in the mint family, but in the related vervain family (Verbenaceae). The flavor of Mexican oregano has a stronger savory component instead of the piney hint of rosemary-like flavor in true oregano, and its citrus accent might be more aromatic than in oregano. It is becoming more commonly sold outside of Mexico, especially in the southeastern United States. It is sometimes used as a substitute for epazote leaves.
Hedeoma patens, known in Spanish as orégano chiquito ('small oregano'), is also among the Lamiaceae. It is used as an herb in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila.
^Mockute, Danute; Bernotiene, Genovaite; Judzentiene, Asta (2001). "The essential oil of Origanum vulgare L. Ssp. Vulgare growing wild in Vilnius district (Lithuania)". Phytochemistry. 57 (1): 65-9. doi:10.1016/S0031-9422(00)00474-X. PMID11336262.