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.
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.
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.