picture of oregano

An annual herb for all seasons

My earliest food memory of oregano is the musty scent of over-seasoned marinara sauce.

Like too much salt, too much oregano can ruin a dish; for a while, maybe ruin your appetite for marinara-based dishes.

When I was in my 20s, my faith in oregano was restored at an marvelous restaurant in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. At least back then, Nabeel’s made magic with oregano in baked seafood and souvlaki.

In my own kitchen, I still tend to over-season with oregano. Nevertheless, Origanum is the ruling genus of my herb garden. And here’s why.

Various aromatic species of oregano can flourish in the quasi-Mediterranean microclimate of our deck, less than a full step away from the kitchen. This area is fully exposed to sun and protected by the eaves from late summer rains.

After oregano seedlings are well established, the less I nurture them, the better. The plants grow prolifically enough for me to allow them to flower, feeding local bees, while snipping enough new leaves to dry for winter meals.

Unlike the delicate species planted on our deck, common oregano (wild marjoram) grows into a perennial bush in our Anchorage garden.

Most oregano species, subspecies and hybrids don’t overwinter reliably in an Anchorage garden. In contrast, O. vulgare (common oregano or wild marjoram) grows back in local, unamended dirt with brio, developing huge spreads of flowers that attract almost as many bees as the raspberry canes. That’s a lot of bees!

In recent years, my preferences among various oregano species, subspecies and hybrids has flipped around. One year, thanks to Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy, I only wanted to grow the more finicky marjoram (it’s currently placed in the Origanum genus). I planted it anywhere a spot of dirt was available.

I still overplant marjoram. I rarely use all of it fresh, so I dry the rest to replace oregano in dishes that benefit from a more delicate, flowery note. (Note: The culinary snobs who refuse to use dried marjoram are missing out.)

Additionally, I plant Italian and Greek oregano in the spring, treating them as annuals. Occasionally, they come back, but weakly. I also plant at least one ornamental oregano every year. Dittany of Crete is a sweet, fuzzy little medicinal/ornamental plant that fits well in a hanging basket or deck planter. Many thanks to Cathy Sage for ordering a bunch of Dittany starts for the Anchorage Botanical Garden’s Herb Study Group a couple years ago.

If we had a longer growing season, these oregano “roses” would grow to look more like hops.

I’ve also tried Kirigami and Kent Beauty ornamental oregano, but my latest favorite is the hybrid Barbara Tingey, discovered by chance last spring at a local nursery.

This summer, for the first time, I preserved oregano – the Barbara Tingey – for indoor floral arrangements. (Actually, what happened is I put the flowering stalks in vases, and they dried up beautifully with zero attention!)

If any of this has inspired you to learn more about oregano, it just so happens that I gave a really nerdy talk on the subject in Spring 2018 to the Herb Study Group. At the time, I worked hard on this “fact sheet” which outlines the various major species, hybrids, and subspecies–culinary, ornamental and medicinal.

One of the favorite fact sheet items: the name of the genus is thought to originate from Greek words that mean “joy of the mountains.”

One day, I hope to roll around joyfully on a Mediterranean hill covered in wild oregano (avoiding protruding rocks, perhaps). But in the meantime, I’m trying to appreciate the intensely aromatic plants in my own part of the world.

And that’s a blog post for another day ….

For all who’ve faithfully read to the end of this post, here is your reward: a still-accurate list of favorite culinary uses for oregano and marjoram.

Finding respite at elevation

In mid-June, I finally stopped spending all my spare time puttering in the vegetable garden and made some dates to hike with friends and look for plants.

It’s now two weeks into July. We’re past the “peak flower” time for wildflowers in the Chugach Mountains. I’ve been too busy to post about each adventure but have saved up some memories and pictures to share in a few photo galleries.

My hiking group will have bittersweet recollections of one hike late June. Several of us joined a 7 a.m. trip that started on the lower slopes of Pioneer Peak – the familiar massif that looms over Palmer, Alaska. Six days later, we found out that one of our hiking companions and two others, including her husband, had died in a small plane accident.

Also, in recent weeks, Alaskans have been suffering from record-level heat, smoke from wildfires, and the dumpster fire of Alaska’s political situation. Higher elevations have been providing many of us with a little respite from all of the above.

Click on the pictures for a closer look.

Pioneer Peak trail, June 23 with the Alaska Native Plant Society:

Hatcher Pass, Gold Cord Lake trail, June 30

Hatcher Pass, Craigie Creek trail, July 6, with the Alaska Native Plant Society

Denali State Park, Ermine Hill Trail, July 7


Ancient grains in an Alaska garden

Usually I’m pretty good at remembering how I met a fascinating new plant.

For amaranth, however, my memory is hazy. My best guess is I first laid eyes on a Love Lies Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus), dripping from a friend’s front porch flower box.

Initially, my gaze focused on the plant’s long, magenta locks (other varieties come in lime green or even coral seed heads). Similar to my experience with runner beans, it took a few years of growing amaranth to appreciate its edible qualities.

My current favorite for floral arrangements is Red Spike Amaranth (A. cruentus).

Widely cultivated in ancient Mesoamerica and other regions for food and religious practices, gluten-free amaranth is by no means a cold climate plant. But even though A. caudatus (pictured above) and A. cruentus (to the right) look like divas, they don’t act that way. Amaranth germinates and reseeds like a champ, and needs limited attention during the growing season.

I’ve cultivated Love Lies Bleeding from saved seed for many years. In 2016, I grew out nearly every seedling that germinated – quite a lot – and peddled them to all of my gardening friends. That summer I created at least three new amaranth fans in metropolitan Anchorage.

Gluten-free popped amaranth takes a few messy seconds to make on the stove. Make sure to strain out the un-popped seed.

This week I popped a half pint jar of seeds I saved a few years ago. (You need to boil or “pop” amaranth seeds to digest them.) I hope to use my remaining popped seeds to make a small batch of traditional Mexican snack bars

Growing and harvesting amaranth is a simple way to learn rudimentary skills in threshing and winnowing. Amaranth likely isn’t a viable commercial crop here but growing it at home might be fun for families who want to try harvesting small batches of their own grain.

The amaranth genus includes some invasive plants that plague farmers, including pigweed, which has arrived in Alaska. I admit to a certain fondness for the plant, due solely to ‘Old Pigweed’, a favorite Mark Knopfler tune.

Growing and Harvesting Tips: For big, happy plants, provide fertile soil, sunlight, and lots of space. You can plant amaranth in containers and move them under the eaves of your house if you experience rainy falls that diminish seed production.

In the fall, snip the long flowering stalks when they are completely dry. Store them carefully and whenever convenient for you, thresh and winnow them. If the chaff blows in your face, wash it off carefully. Speaking from experience, rubbing chaff off your face is rather painful!

In my garden, amaranth grows much better than another ancient grain, quinoa, which develops seed over a longer season. I’ve also found it easier to harvest the seed from amaranth, perhaps because my quinoa seed never matured properly. All of the amaranth varieties I’ve tried produce edible salad greens and large quantities of seed. Plus they make amazing floral arrangements.

Falling for wild plants

You don’t have to do much stalking to find at least one wild plant in Alaska that tastes like asparagus.

I developed a habit of snacking on fireweed shoots last year. The tender red shoots are everywhere in early spring. They taste like asparagus and are often used that way. (It’s ironic that the classic book on wild foraging, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, describes a vegetable that escaped the garden.)

Snacking aside, I’m a vegetable gardener not a forager. Unless it’s blueberry season, I’m not looking for edibles when I go hiking.

Alaska Boykinia blooming in Gates of the Arctic National Park

Enjoying Alaska’s native plants has been a way to honor the memory of my father over the last year. Like some people track the birds they’ve identified, he tracked wildflowers, looking for new plants on family hikes and camping trips around the United States.

The field botany class in Anchorage taught by Dr. Marilyn Barker (offered again in May 2019 through the Alaska Botanical Garden) helped me develop some general knowledge of Alaska native plants.

During evening class hikes into local parks last year, Barker pointed out plants I hadn’t noticed before, like trailing raspberries and black currants on the forest floor, and juniper creeping over rocky outcrops.

My field botany lessons continued with last year’s Alaska Native Plant Society plant walk to the summit of Mount Gordon Lyon. Then in July, I was fortunate to spend a week in Gates of the Arctic National Park and learn a bit about plant ecology north of the Arctic Circle.

Barker had mentioned the existence of native species of dandelion in Alaska. Sure enough, we found a dandelion – just one – while climbing up a rocky slope high above Amiloyak Lake in the national park.

I don’t have a picture of that dandelion – the slope was covered in loose scree and my camera was out of reach – but I do have several witnesses.

We had other unexpected plant sightings on the Arctic trip, including Alaska Boykinia (Boykinia richardsonii) at peak bloom. Also known as Bear Flower or Richardson’s Brookfoam, Alaska Boykinia is a holdover from late Tertiary temperate forests and is found only in Alaska and Canada. Various sources indicate bears enjoy eating these plants during the summer.

My appreciation of flowering and/or edible wild plants remains very amateurish and playful. I may never become truly knowledgeable about native plants, but I’ll keep nibbling at it!

Culinary tip: Alaskans have many traditional and modern culinary uses for fireweed. I’m happy to just nibble on the raw shoots, while they are still tiny, during spring hikes. Read on for foraging techniques and recipes.

Eating runner beans

Ode to runner beans

In our household, runner beans are the vegetable equivalent of sockeye salmon, another abundant species that fills up Alaska freezers every year.

I started growing cold-hardy runner beans after learning that pole beans need a lot of summer heat and wouldn’t produce well in our garden. Bush beans would do well, but I wanted a climbing variety to train on a rustic, homemade trellis.

I learned about runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) from a Master Gardener friend who grows them ornamentally. Looking at the varieties in the Territorial Seed catalog, I was impressed by their vigorous growth (8-10 feet tall!) and colorful blossoms. They even tolerate a light frost!

Runner beans
St. George runner beans twine up a trellis with dill and sugar snap peas.

Runner beans are an annual feature in our garden. They give us massive floral displays all summer and copious amounts of homegrown beans to harvest for winter meals.

Many gardeners who grow runner beans spurn eating them because the texture is coarser than a typical snap bean. I think runners have great bean flavor and the sturdy pods hold up better in the freezer. I harvest them after the pods grow nice and long but before they toughen up.

For beauty’s sake, my favorites are the St. George and Sunset varieties but I’m always looking for unusual ones that I haven’t tried yet!

Growing and harvesting tips

Alaska companies Foundroot and Best Cool Seeds sell Scarlet runner bean seeds with solid red blossoms and lush green foliage. You’ll have to look elsewhere for additional varieties.

I clipped this excellent 2009 article on growing runner beans from Vegetable Gardener magazine and re-read it almost every year. It has interesting factoids and detailed instructions for growing them. One important point is that you need bees in your garden to pollinate the bean flowers. I notice that our runner beans don’t get adequately pollinated until the raspberry canes nearby are blooming.

The article above points out that you can eat runner beans in three stages – snap, shell, and dried. Due to our short season and rainy fall, we almost always eat runners as snap beans. One year I hit the jackpot and harvested shell beans. We enjoyed the large, mottled purple beans simmered in a pot with fresh sage, water, and a glug of oil. I’m still waiting for that to happen again!

I grow bush beans for fresh eating and runner beans for freezing. Unlike other vegetables, I notice no difference if I don’t blanch runners before freezing them. I just wash, cut, and divvy them up in meal-size portions. They preserve well in vacuum-sealed freezer bags. I typically add the frozen beans to stews and pasta dishes near the end of cooking.

Gardening for the senses

Why do I garden? How can I help other gardeners? Meditating on these questions is what Transcendental Gardening is all about.

Like many others, I garden for the senses. Mostly to bask in the natural beauty, interesting smells, and fresh flavors bursting from the garden and share these pleasures with family and friends.

But I also garden for practical uses. Most of my plants are edible or useful in some other way. On this website you’ll see plenty of flowers but no actual flower beds.

Tarragon and poppies
Tarragon and Shirley double poppies catch afternoon light in the herb garden.

Lastly, I garden to satisfy my inner geek. I enjoy reading up on plant science and discussing plant problems with the experts.

At the end of 2018 I completed the Alaska Master Gardener Course and committed at least 40 hours of community service to assist other aspiring gardeners. Starting this website is one way I hope to provide community service as a new Master Gardener.

This website and blog are designed to assist other gardeners through the appreciation of plants rather than instruction. That said I’ve shared links to organizations, books, and websites that helped me on the Resources page.

Many gardening-related organizations and business owners in Alaska have websites, offer classes, and write regular columns. I don’t plan to offer these services but I’m happy to connect new gardeners in northern regions with organizations and entrepreneurs that offer instruction.

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