Oregano (origanum vulgare)

This fragrant, bushy perennial grows to 2 feet tall, bearing hairy oval leaves and branched clusters of pink flowers that attract bees and other beneficial insects. Native to Europe, central Asia, and the Mediterranean regions, oregano has been used since prehistoric times as a food and medicinal plant.

The ancient Greeks considered it a sign of happiness when the plant was found growing on the grave of a loved one. Before hops plants were introduced to England (probably in the late 15th century), oregano’s flowering tops were added to ale and beer as a preservative and flavoring. In medieval times, the plant was strewn, along with rushes, on stone floors to release a sweet scent when walked upon.

Oregano

Plant profile

Common Name: Oregano

Description: Fragrant, bushy, 2-foot-tall perennial; opposite, hairy, oval leaves; spikes of pink, purple, or white flowers

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Leaves and flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, central Asia, and the Mediterranean region

Culinary use

Fresh or dried, oregano is popular in Italian, Greek, and Mexican cuisines. It complements cheese, tomato, bean, pasta, meat, and egg dishes. Also called the “pizza herb,” oregano imparts a flavor that is universally known. Commercially, it is used to flavor some alcoholic beverages, baked goods, and meat products.

Medicinal use

The essential oil of oregano contains thymol and carvacrol, chemicals that have powerful antiseptic, antibiotic, and antifungal properties. The herb is used to improve digestion, to kill intestinal worms, and as an expectorant to treat inflamed bronchial membranes. To relieve a cough, you can take oregano as a tea or inhale it by steam. (The herb’s volatile oil is vaporized by boiling water.)

Externally, the leaves can be applied as a hot compress — as the ancient Greeks did — for treating skin conditions, swellings, joint pain, and colic. Diluted oregano oil can be applied to insect bites and athlete’s foot.

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine use oregano to treat gastrointestinal and respiratory conditions, childhood malnutrition, and fevers.

Other uses

Oregano leaves and flowers are fragrant additions to potpourris; the dried flowers can also be used in wreaths and crafts. Essential oil of oregano is an ingredient in some men’s colognes.

How to grow it

Oregano thrives in well-drained to dry soil in full sun. Start with nursery-grown plants; if possible, taste the herb before purchasing because individual plants can vary in flavor. Beginning during the second year, cut back the stems almost to the ground just as the plants begin to bloom. Dry the stems in a warm, dark place, then rub them on a screen to remove the leaves. Discard the stems and store the leaves in an airtight container. Propagate by cuttings or root division.