Mint relatives with tight clusters of small flowers. Each blossom has a collar of bractslarge, colorful, and quite decorative in some speciesthat can overlap to give the look of a small pinecone. These can be cut and dried as the first flowers open for use in arrangements and wreaths. Blossoms are especially attractive to bees and butterflies. Most oreganos have pleasantly aromatic foliage. Though several kinds are valued for cooking, others are chiefly ornamentals, used as ground covers or to cascade over rocks, retaining walls, and the edges of hanging baskets. Some are hardy and evergreen; others are tender and killed by frost. None is seriously damaged by browsing deer.
All types of Origanum look good in the garden. But for kitchen use, the following are best. Sweet marjoram (O. marjorana) has a sweet, spicy flavor; it can even be used to make tea. Italian marjoram (O. x majoricum) has a more complex, slightly less sweet flavor, while pot marjoram (O. onites) has a savory, thyme- like taste.
Flavor of the plain oregano (O. vulgare) is variable; choose a selected form with an aroma and flavor you like. Biblical hyssop (O. syriacum) and Greek oregano (O. v. hirtum) are pungent and spicy-hot.
O. dictamnus. DITTANY OF CRETE, HOP MARJORAM. Zones MS, LS, CS; USDA 7-9. Native to Crete. Aromatic herb to 8 in. high, 1122 ft. wide, with slender, arching stems to 1 ft. long. Thick, roundish, woolly white leaves to 34 in. long. Pink to purplish flowers emerge from rose-tinted, light green bracts; blooms summer to fall. Primarily ornamental, it shows up best when planted individually in rock garden or in hanging basket.
O. laevigatum. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native to Turkey, Cyprus. A sprawling, ornamental oregano with grayish green leaves about 1 14 in. long; reaches 2 ft. tall in bloom. It spreads by rhizomes and arching stems that root at the joints to form a dense clump 23 ft. wide. Branching, airy clusters of 1-in., tubular pink or purple flowers and small purplish bracts appear from late spring to fall. Useful on a bank or as a ground cover. 'Herrenhausen' has larger bracts and more compact heads of lilac-pink flowers. 'Hopleys', probably a hybrid with O. vulgare, blooms from mid- to late summer, bearing denser heads of purplish pink flowers and purplish bracts; it self-sows freely, producing seedlings with variable foliage and flower color. Both 'Herrenhausen' and 'Hopleys' have purple leaves in cool weather. 'Pilgrim' has gray-green leaves that set apart the lavender flowers with dark purple calyxes.
O. majorana. SWEET MARJORAM, KNOTTED MARJORAM. Zones CS, TS; USDA 9-11. Native to the Mediterranean and Turkey. To 12 ft. tall and wide. Oval, gray- green leaves to 1 in. long. In summer, inconspicuous white flowers emerge from clusters of knotlike heads at top of plant. Keep blossoms cut off and plant trimmed to encourage fresh growth. Fresh or dried leaves are used for seasoning meats, scrambled eggs, salads, vinegars, casseroles, and tomato dishes. Often grown in pots indoors on sunny window- sill in cold-winter areas. Leaves of 'White Anniversary' have a distinct cream margin.
O. xmajoricum. ITALIAN MARJORAM, SICILIAN MARJORAM. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Similar to O. majorana but with wider, greener leaves. Some gourmet cooks consider this the best marjoram for seasoning.
O. microphyllum. Zones MS, LS, CS; USDA 7-9. Native to Crete. Grows to 10in. high and 1 ft. wide, with domelike form. Reddish branches bear tiny gray-green leaves to 14 in. long. Clusters of small, pale pink to purple flowers bloom in summer. Thrives in dry rock crevices.
O. 'Norton Gold'. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Hybrid ornamental to 11 ft. high, 2 ft. wide. Forms a dense mat of small, rounded leaves that are bright green when new, aging to a darker shade. Profuse lavender-pink flowers with rosy bracts in summer. Best with moderate water.
O. onites. POT MARJORAM, RHIGANI. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Eastern Mediterranean native. To 2 ft. tall and wide, with bright green, inch-long leaves and 2-in.-wide, flattish heads of white or purplish flowers in late summer. Sometimes called Cretan oregano. Has a strong, musky fragrance.
O. rotundifolium. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native to Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia. Dense, suckering plant grows to 8 in. high and 1 ft. wide, bearing numerous wiry stems set with pairs of blue-green leaves that have a rounded heart shape. Blooms throughout summer, bearing spikes of small, pale pink blossoms and green, 2- to 3-in.-long bracts like those of hop (Humulus) at stem ends (bracts almost obscure the flowers). 'Kent Beauty' is a hybrid with O. scabrum and has a more compact habit (4 in. high, 8 in. wide). It bears conspicuously mauve-toned pink blossoms and deep rose bracts in the summer. It's a charming, easy-to-grow addition to garden beds, window boxes, and pots.
O. syriacum. BIBLICAL HYSSOP, SYRIAN MARJORAM. Zones CS, TS; USDA 9-11. From Syria, Turkey, Cyprus. With its strong, sweet, pungent flavor, this plant is a favorite herb for flavoring Middle Eastern dishes. To 112 ft. tall and wide. Soft, gray-green leaves to 112 in. long. Blooms in late spring and early summer, with pale pink, 14-in. flowers in branching, 2- to 3-in. clusters.
O. vulgare. OREGANO, WILD MARJORAM. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native to most of Europe and temperate Asia. Upright growth to 212 ft. tall, 23 ft. wide. Oval, dark green leaves to 112 in. long and 34 in. wide; white or purplish pink blossoms from midsummer to early fall. Fresh or dried leaves are used in many dishes, especially Spanish and Italian ones.
Most wild forms have scentless leaves and are useless for cooking; be sure to choose a selected form with a good aroma and a flavor that you like. For best flavor, keep this plant trimmed to prevent floweringbut let some clumps bloom for bees and butterflies to enjoy.
'Aureum' has pinkish flowers and foliage that is bright golden in spring (if the plant gets morning sun), green by late summer and fall; 'Thumble's Variety' is similar but has white blossoms. 'Aureum Crispum' has curly golden leaves. 'Compactum' ('Humile') is a wide-spreading plant just a few inches tall, suitable for a ground cover or a filler between paving stones; it seldom flowers, but leaves turn purple in winter. 'Country Cream' (with white flowers) and 'Polyphant' (lilac-pink blooms, also sold as 'White Anniversary') are compact growers to 46 in. and have leaves with a distinct creamy white edge; they are often confused in commerce (and both are sometimes sold as 'Variegatum'). 'Roseum' has bright rose-pink flowers, green leaves.
O. v. hirtum (O. heracleoticum). GREEK OREGANO. Native to Greece, Turkey, the Aegean islands. Like the species, but with broader, slightly fuzzy, gray-green leaves. Spicy and pungent; considered by many to have the best true oregano flavor.
Oreganos aren't fussy about soil as long as it is well drained. They'll tolerate light shade, but most do better in full sun (culinary types need full sun to develop best flavor). In milder areas, many species become woody and less productive with age; to restore vigor, cut the previous year's stems to the ground in winter or early spring. You can start plants from seed, but because oreganos cross-pollinate freely, you may not get the plant you want. It's a better bet to purchase potted plants whose identities are certain.
To keep plants producing, cut sprigs often. For a large harvest for drying, wait until just before plants bloom and cut the stems above the lowest set of leaves; new foliage will sprout, and you can cut again in late summer. Don't harvest within a month before the first expected frost, however, as the plants need time to re-establish themselves before cold weather. Strip leaves from stems after they dry.