It’s great on pizza and essential in spaghetti sauce, but oregano has long been prized as a bringer of good luck and good health. It’s even been reputed to cure overdoses of opium and hemlock.
Like many ancient herbs, oregano goes by a variety of names, including dittany and marjoram (which is a mild form of oregano). There’s Greek oregano, Turkish oregano, dittany of Crete, sweet marjoram, Mexican oregano and more. The last one isn’t even a member of the same plant family, but it contains similar flavour compounds, so cooks lump it in with the others. All of them have their own specific flavours – some are sharper, some are mild, and some are best left for perfumes and essential oils rather than the kitchen.
The name comes from the Greek for “bright hill” or “mountain of joy,” and refers to the bright green splash oregano brings to the dry chalky hills of its native habitat.
The name could also be a reference to the plant’s many healing properties. Oregano has compounds that are antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antifungal and even antiviral. In fact, there’s some evidence that it was used as a medicinal plant first, and that people then discovered that it also made food taste good.
It was associated with Artemis, the Greek goddess in charge of protection during childbirth, as well as with Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love. Artemis was often depicted wearing a wreath made from dittany of Crete, a form of oregano.
The plant’s many properties made it a great way to help preserve foods. Fish packed in oregano leaves wouldn’t spoil as quickly, and also took on the lovely flavour of oregano – a culinary win-win that the ancients were only too happy to embrace.
The flavour comes from the aromatic oils in the leaves, which are present to varying degrees at different times of year – the plant is at its most pungent in mid-summer. The oils remain viable once the plant is dried: ounce for ounce, dry oregano is much more potent than fresh.
Flavour can also vary quite a bit from plant to plant, even within the same variety of oregano. If you’re buying seedlings at a nursery, you’re best to sniff and taste a few leaves before choosing your plant.
True oregano in all its forms is native to the Mediterranean, and thrives in hot, dry weather. Common oregano can be hardy to zone five, so it will overwinter in the GTA and might survive in Muskoka depending on your microclimate. But most of the time oregano is grown as an annual, or else grown in pots and brought indoors for the winter.
This is a tough plant that thrives on dry, stony soil. Keep it away from clay, though, because the one thing it can’t stand is to have wet feet. It likes slightly alkaline soil. Muskoka’s soils are naturally acidic, so your oregano patch will be happiest if you mix some limestone in to the soil.
Then it’s just a matter of watering it from time to time and enjoying the flavour of the Mediterranean.