Oregano is a staple in many of our kitchens and an ingredient in numerous recipes. A member of the mint family, Origanum vulgare can be translated from its Greek origins as “joy of the mountain.” The ancient Greeks discovered it growing wild in the mountains and along the sea and have been using it for thousands of years, both for oregano’s health benefits and culinary enrichment.
But did you know it really hasn’t been common in the United States all that long? Our boys in the service brought it home after World War II’s Italian campaigns, when they tasted and appreciated the savory and zesty spiciness of oregano, especially on pizza.
Now widely available, this earthy herb goes well with Italian, Mexican, and Spanish dishes, rounds out tomato-based sauces, and complements many meats and vegetable dishes.
Growing your own oregano plants is easy and, of course, promises fresher and more flavorful herbs than store bought. Either started from seed or seedlings from a nursery, they require little care. For the best flavor, you may wish to grow the Greek/Italian oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum) rather than common oregano (Origanum vulgare).
This is a perennial plant, but in colder climates it can be grown as an annual or wintered indoors. Oregano is usually only zoned as a perennial to zone 5. Plant seeds indoors and replant outside after the last frost. Plants can also be started by division or cuttings.
Soil: Oregano will grow in almost any soil as long as it is well draining. It does best in loamy gravely soil.
Sun: Full sun for at least 6 to 8 hours a day.
Water: Water moderately. Watering thoroughly and less often is better than constant moisture.
Fertilizing: If using organic mulch or if the soil has been amended, very little fertilizer if any is needed. Remember, if growing in pots they will need a little more water and fertilizer.
Harvesting: After the plant has reached a height of 4 to 5 inches, it is best to pinch or trim a little off to encourage bushier growth. When it has reached a height of 6 to 8 inches again you can began to pick leaves. Oregano is usually a small bush but can grow up to 2 feet. If you harvest frequently it will keep the plant denser and reduce legginess. Most plants grow to 8 to 12 inches and spread to about 18 inches and send out runners.
Long Term Care: Thin plants after 3 to 4 years to have the most robust bushes. Oregano is also self-seeding so it should always come back. To have a small amount in the house, just set a small pot by a sunny window.
Drying and Preserving
Oregano is one of the few herbs that taste better dried than fresh. When dried, the flavor becomes more pronounced, less bitter and a little sweeter.
- Pick oregano in the morning after the dew has dried.
- Cut a bunch tie stems together and hang upside down in a warm, dry place that has good circulation.
- The leaves will become crisp when it has thoroughly dried.
- Hold stem with one hand and slide leaves off the stem with the other hand.
- Keep them whole in an airtight container away from sunlight.
- Do not crush or chop leaves until you are ready to use to preserve the essential oils.
Freezing is another way to keep them over winter. Dry sprigs then take the leaves off the stems and put in a plastic bag. Remove all air and freeze. It is also a snap to crush the leaves and put in an ice cube tray with a little water. Then just toss the ice cube in whatever dish you are preparing. Frozen oregano can be kept for one year.
Oregano Health Benefits and Uses
While kitchen herbs are often overlooked as medicine, many culinary herbs have been used for generations to promote digestion and overall health. Used since ancient times, oregano continues its medicinal tradition today as a carminative, respiratory ally, emmenagogue, and anti-inflammatory.
Its antiseptic qualities come from its potent volatile oils, thymol and carvacrol, which have been shown to inhibit growth of Pseudomonas and Staphylococcus in culture (although it is unclear if this action takes place inside a living organism).
The rosmarinic acid content of oregano is the basis for its strong antioxidant action, and may help to protect bodily cells against oxygen-based harm and damage.
Sprinkled on food, it can help add a nutrient dense flavor that is a good source of vitamin K, manganese, calcium, and iron.
Oregano Tea: Add oregano to your favorite cold tea for respiratory complaints, especially those with excessive phlegm, coughing, and bronchitis. As a carminative, oregano tea is used to soothe digestion, ease bloating, and stimulate bile.
Oregano infused vinegar: Can be applied topically to skin fungus or sprinkled onto food for added flavor.
Oregano infused olive oil: Can be used topically or as a culinary oil. (Note that infused oil is not the same as essential oil, which should not be used internally.)
Foot soak: Sprinkle in finely ground oregano into a warm foot soak to sweat out a cold or congestion.
Safety: Oregano is considered to be an emmenagogue and may stimulate menstrual flow. Avoid medicinal amounts during pregnancy.
Becoming reacquainted with our common culinary herbs leads one to think we might have almost everything we need for our well-being right under our noses! Whatever continues to be discovered through the research about oregano and other kitchen herbal companions, we will always find joy and delight when using them in our teas, oils, and cuisines!
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