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Origanum vulgare L. 1753
pronounced: or-RIG-uh-num vul-GAIR-ee
(Lamiaceae – the lavender family)
common names: Oregano, Wild Marjoram
Origanum is Latin for the wild-marjoram, and derives from the Greek οριγανον (origanon) for the same bitter herb. An amusing use of the word in classical Greek times was ‘to look origanum’, meaning ‘to look sour or crabbed’. The Greek word may well have been a loan word from an unknown North African language. Vulgare is from the Latin vulgaris, common, ordinary, every-day. The word Oregano comes to us via American Spanish.
Oregano is native to the Mediterranean region and warm-temperate western and south-western Europe and Asia. It is a perennial, growing from 20–80 cm tall, with opposite leaves 1–4 cm long. The flowers are purple, 3–4 mm long, produced in erect spikes. The plants photographed may well be a subspecies or a cultivar, of which many have been developed over the centuries for their unique flavours or other characteristics. Tastes range from spicy or astringent to more complicated and sweet.
Notable subspecies are:
• ssp. gracile, originally from Khirgizstan. It has glossy green leaves and pink flowers. Pungent and spicy.
• ssp. hirtum, Italian or Greek oregano. A common source of cultivars, vigorous and very hardy, with darker green, slightly hairy foliage. Generally considered the best all-purpose culinary oregano.
• ssp. onites, Cretan or Turkish oregano. A tender perennial growing to 45 cm tall, with pale green to grey-green woolly rounded foliage. Strong, intensely spicy flavour.
• ssp. syriacum, Syrian or Lebanese oregano. Larger leaves that vary in colours ranging from pale green to greyish. Pungent.
Some cultivars are:
• ‘Aureum’ – golden foliage, greener if grown in the shade. Mild taste.
• ‘Greek’, ‘Kalitari’ – small, hardy, dark, compact, thick silvery-haired leaves, usually with purple undersides. Strongly flavoured, and has medicinal uses.
• ‘Hot and Spicy’ – as the name suggests.
• ‘Nana’ – dwarf cultivar.
Oregano is widely used in Turkish, Palestinian, Syrian, Greek, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Latin American cuisines. Unlike many of the other culinary herbs, the flavour of the leaves is often enhanced when they are dried. Oregano has an aromatic, warm and slightly bitter taste that varies greatly in intensity. It may be strong enough almost to numb the tongue; but factors such as climate, seasons and soil composition may effect the aromatic oils present, and this effect may be greater than the differences between the various subspecies and cultivars.
The Convolvulus Hawk Moth Agrius convolvuli uses this as a food plant for its larvae.
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, used oregano as an antiseptic, and as a cure for stomach and respiratory ailments.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photograph taken in Picnic Bay 2010
Page last updated 30th January 2018