Italian and Greek food wouldn’t be as appealing without the smell of oregano adding a pungent treble to the bass note of garlicy aroma in most Mediterranean recipes. That oregano smell has attracted fans across the world and throughout history. Ancient Greeks used oregano as a treatment for respiratory infections. Ancient Egyptian herbalists used it as an antidote for poison. The name oregano means ‘joy of the mountain.’
Today, oregano is a staple herb in Italian and Greek cuisine and is greatly famous for enhancing the flavor of tomato-based dishes. It is used in meat, fish, and poultry dishes. It’s great in salads, soups, vegetable dishes, pasta sauces, and scrambled eggs.
Oregano herb comes from the Lamiaceae family, or mint family, like basil, rosemary, and thyme. Its natural habitat is the mountainous region around the Mediterranean Sea. The ancient Greeks and Romans introduced oregano to Europe, and the Spaniards in turn brought it to the New World.
Benefits of Oregano Herb
The Greeks weren’t wrong about the medicinal qualities of oregano. Greek physician Hippocrates recommended its use as an antiseptic and to treat stomach aches.
You can take oregano to strengthen and stimulate the stomach. You can also apply it as a poultice to help heal bruises and contusions. Mix dried oregano leaves with honey and apply as a salve to your bruise.
Hippocrates recommended hot oregano tea for coughs. You can also sip the tea to combat indigestion and gas. It has been used to eradicate the common amoeba giardia lamblia, which is responsible for several digestive disorders such as flatulence, vomiting and diarrhea.
Rich in antioxidants
Oregano is rich in the antioxidants carvacrol and thymol. These are the bioactive phytochemicals of the plant responsible for its health benefits. Studies have shown that these elements are effective against several strains of bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus.
Recent science has revealed how important it is that we prevent inflammation, as it can stimulate diseases like arthritis and heart disease. Carvacrol has proven itself an effective anti-inflammatory in the lab.
Oregano does a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to maintaining health. A 2018 study showed that common oregano inhibited metastasis (cell growth) in stomach cancer.
Carvacrol also fights gut parasites and can improve intestinal flora. It’s frequently used medicinally in organic farming to enhance digestion in livestock.
Lab testing has shown that oregano oil is an effective antimicrobial agent against a wide range of dangerous bacteria. Scientists tested it as a possible food preservative with excellent results.
Boosts immune system
Oregano doesn’t just smell good. Scientists found that oregano and sage, both members of the Lamiaceae herb family, improve immune function.
Helps to manage diabetes
Type 2 Diabetes is nearly epidemic, and safe, simplified treatment could come from the humble oregano plant. The herb has the unique ability to improve insulin resistance as well as improve the metabolism of fats and sugars.
Improves heart health
While studies are still out on whether oregano can reduce LDL cholesterol in humans, its anti-inflammatory effects can mean better heart health.
Smell And Taste Of Oregano Herb
If you’ve never eaten a pizza, you may wonder what does oregano smell like. Culinary experts describe the oregano scent as pungent, with earthy tones. Since it’s a member of the Lamiaceae family, it can sometimes smell a little minty. However, most people say its much stronger, even “camphoraceous.” The sense of smell can be highly individual, and you may even find it smells like grass or hay.
The smell of oregano will be slightly different depending on the variety. There are several types of oregano, and there are plants that we call oregano that are completely unrelated.
The most commonly used and well-known types are Italian oregano and Greek oregano, both subspecies of Oregano vulgaris.
Both varieties can smell a bit skunky, however, it’s normally the dried herb that smells a bit odd. Some people even find dried oregano by itself smells unpleasant. However, fresh oregano is both spicy and sweet smelling.
The source of that oregano scent is carvacrol, created by enzymes in the plant. Oregano uses a multi-stage process that takes place in specialized glands on the surface of the plant’s leaves.
While oregano can taste a little bitter, its sharp tones work to highlight and lift more savory flavors in food. By itself, it can taste a bit medicinal. It can also feel a bit astringent and drying on your tongue.
How to Plant Oregano
There’s nothing like the scent and flavor of fresh oregano. Luckily, it’s an easy plant to care for and it will do well in most gardens. Both Italian and Greek oregano are Mediterranean climate plants, so they’ll thrive on neglect once established.
Oregano is a perennial plant and will be evergreen in warm climates. In temperate zones, it’s hardy up to Zone 5.
When to Plant
Oregano can take several months to grow mature enough to harvest without damaging the plant. So, the best time to plant it depends on how you plan to propagate it.
- Grow from seed
- Start from cuttings
- Purchase from a nursery
All three of these are valid options, it just depends on how quickly you want results. The key takeaway is that you should plant out healthy, well-developed starter plants about a month after your last frost date. This will give the plant the entire summer to dig in before winter hits.
You should start seeds as much as three months before your last frost date. You’ll need to pot it into larger pots as it grows out of the smaller ones. You’ll also need to use a grow light if you don’t have a warm, south-facing window. Heat mats can also make growing oregano from seed a lot easier.
Selecting a Planting Site
Oregano is a Mediterranean herb and prefers a sunny location with well-draining, even sandy soil. If any part of your garden is prone to flooding, consider planting it in a container instead.
Terracotta is an excellent choice. Clay pots are permeable and allow excess moisture to evaporate from the soil through pores in the clay. This helps prevent root rot and blight from sodden potting mix.
Spacing, Depth, and Support
You can plant oregano at a spacing of 12 to 24 inches, depending on how often you plan to harvest the herb. It will grow into the space you provide, and 2 feet provides enough room for it to roam a little.
Plant your starter oregano level with the garden soil, although you can mound the soil a little to improve drainage if necessary. Oregano doesn’t usually require any supports or trellising.
Oregano Plant Care
When creating a care plan for oregano, or any of the other Mediterranean herbs, it’s important to remember the conditions where these plants evolved. The area around the Mediterranean is dry, hot, and windy. The soil in the region is poor, sandy, and even rocky, and these plants have evolved over the millennium to thrive in these conditions. Oregano doesn’t need to be pampered at all.
Make sure your oregano plant receives at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight during the growing season.
Use a light, sandy soil for your oregano. If you’re planning to grow it in the ground, choose a high spot in your garden that doesn’t puddle or get muddy when it rains. Loosen the soil with a garden fork and add sand, perlite, or pebbles if you find a high amount of clay.
If you’re growing your oregano in a container, you can use a mix of cactus potting soil and regular vegetable potting soil at a ratio of 50/50.
Water your oregano in well when first planted. Afterward, normal rainfall should suffice for this drought-tolerant plant. However, take your cues from the weather and your plant’s condition. If it appears wilted and sad, give it a drink. If you haven’t had rain in two weeks, by all means, provide it with some water.
Maintain Temperature and Humidity
Once established, oregano will survive cold winter weather and is otherwise happy in a wide range of temperatures. It’s a good idea to trim it back at the end of fall and mulch it to keep the roots safe from freeze damage. It should grow back in the spring.
Oregano doesn’t do well in high humidity, although it will survive a sultry summer outdoors. If you’re growing your oregano indoors, however, avoid placing it in humid locations in your home. The kitchen is fine but avoid bathrooms and laundry rooms.
Oregano will likely need no fertilizer during its first year or two. However, adding a granular feed once a year or a light layer of compost in the spring will keep it producing for years to come.
You’ll find that bees simply adore oregano blooms. You won’t need to worry about pollination when it comes to harvesting oregano for cooking or storage. But it’s fascinating to watch how the oregano scent seems to fill the bees with giddy joy.
Types of Oregano
Oregano is grayish green perennial herb with hairy branched stems with green opposite leaves also covered with fine hair. The flowers bloom on a spike at the end of the stems.
The plant has a strong odor similar to thyme and sage.
The oregano plant can grow horizontally up to 2 1/2 feet tall with pungent leaves. The flowers grow in clusters at the end of shoots and bloom in the late summer.
The two most commonly used forms of oregano are Greek oregano and Italian oregano. Both types grow as large herbaceous plants, up to two feet tall, with long strands covered in small oval leaves.
Both varieties have that distinct oregano scent and both will elevate your cooking. However, when it comes to Italian oregano vs Greek oregano, it pays to know the difference before adding it to recipes.
Greek oregano, or Origanum vulgare, subsp. hirtum, is sharper tasting than Italian oregano. It has a sharp camphor note that pairs well with meat or fish. It also stands up well to heavy garlic use.
Greek Oregano is often referred to as the true oregano. With its classic pungent and spicy flavor, it perfectly complements any tomato, cheese, and egg based dishes. It’s also known as the “pizza herb.” Toss fresh oregano leaves in salads for a zesty kick or use it with meat, fish, poultry, pasta, soup, and stew. It’s also great for stuffing and dusting for grilled dishes.
Wild oregano flowers are purple in color while Greek oregano has white flowers. Greek oregano flowers aren’t showy but will certainly attract bees into your garden.
Italian oregano, Origanum x majoricum, is the sweeter variety. It may even lend a grassy or citrus note to food.
Italian oregano (also called Sicilian Oregano) is a cross of oregano and sweet marjoram and inherits the pungent flavor of oregano with the floral notes of marjoram. Use it as regular oregano if you want your dish to have a hint of sweetness. Alternatively, you can combine it with marjoram in recipes for added spice.
A Mexican oregano plant isn’t related to the Mediterranean variety. It’s Lippia graveolens, a member of the verbena family. The Mexican oregano is more pungent than the Mediterranean variety and is a shrub-like plant that can grow to a height of 7 feet.
Mexican oregano offers a less earthy flavor. People often describe it as floral, even “citrusy,” with a hint of licorice or anise flavor.
Some cooks like to use it as a substitute for real oregano, although most experts say it tastes much more like marjoram than true oregano.
If you’re looking for a Mexican oregano recipe, it’s traditionally used in chile con carne and other Tex-Mex dishes. It also goes well with barbeque, seafood and chicken kebobs, and sausages.
Mexican oregano (left), Greek oregano (right)
How to Harvest and Store Oregano
You can harvest oregano at any time there are enough leaves without scalping the plant. However, it tastes best if you harvest it before it flowers. That’s when the plant is most efficient at turning nutrients into healthful (and tasty) phytochemicals.
Knowing how to harvest oregano without killing the plant is easier than you’d think. Oregano needs regular pruning just to stay healthy. Just be sure that you don’t cut back below the last green leaf or remove all its green foliage when you’re collecting herbs.
Drying oregano for storage is also easy, although not veryfast. Place the long stems on a rack and allow to dry on a slow oven (170°) for several hours. Then, place in an airtight jar.
Alternatively, you can hang them in a cool, dry place in your home to dry over a few weeks.
Some cooks prefer to freeze it, instead. This preserves that fresh flavor and prevents that skunky aroma of the dried herb.
Simply strip the leaves from the stems and place them in a freezer bag. Carefully and gently extract as much air from the bag as you can without crushing the leaves and place it in the freezer for up to a year.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
One of the best things about growing pungent herbs is that garden pests tend to dislike them. Most are too aromatic for insects to tolerate, and oregano is no different. While you may find aphids on your oregano, there are probably plants they like better in the garden.
Indoors, they can suffer from spider mites or thrips, however. Spinosad is a safe, organic pesticide that you can use without worrying about eating the herbs in your dinner.
Oregano is prone to blight, however, especially when the weather is humid. They can also get mint rust. You can keep these diseases at bay by ensuring your plant has good ventilation.
The smell of oregano may bring back memories of your favorite pizza hang-out as a teenager. Or it may send you back to your grandma’s kitchen when she was making spaghetti sauce. The good news is that you can enjoy that oregano scent any time of day, nearly any day of the year, by growing your own herbs.
A sunny window in the kitchen or a dry spot in the garden is the perfect place to grow this versatile and healthy plant. And since they’re drought tolerant and don’t need much fertilizer, they’re one of the most effortless plants in the garden. Enjoy the fresh, vibrant taste of herbs, as well as their intoxicating scent, any time of year.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2012 and has been completely updated.