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Oregano
(Origanum vulgare hirtum
aka O. hirtum)


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About Oregano

Oregano plant

In Italian, oregano is described as condicio sine qua non and we agree: it's one of that handful of utterly great flavorings.

In the U.S., oregano is--or was--best known as the characteristic taste of well-made pizza; we say "or was" because well-made pizza, like well-made anything, is becoming scarcer and scarcer, and blander and blander, so it is not hard to imagine folk who really don't know the taste of oregano even if they eat a lot of pizza (or what passes for pizza nowadays). In any event, though, oregano has a horde of culinary uses beyond pizza.

(As an example of the sleazy adulteration of modern commercial foodstuffs, consider this quotation: "Much of the commercially available dried oregano does not come from this plant but from a number of different, often unrelated plants. These include Lippia graveolens ["Mexican oregano", related to lemon verbena], L. palmeri and Origanum syriacum." Swell, huh?)

According to the Herb Society of America, "The genus Origanum consists of over 44 species, 6 subspecies, 3 botanical varieties and 18 naturally occurring hybrids, and includes several types of oregano as well as sweet marjoram (O. majorana) and dittany of Crete (O. dictamnus)." Moreover, "Carvacrol, a creosote-scented phenol, is the signature chemical responsible for the sharp, pungent flavor of the culinary oreganos"--but by no means all Origanum species have much of it, while several quite unrelated other plants do (and are sold in various parts of the world as "oregano").


Cultivars

As you begin to see, this is very, very tricky business. Hard as it is to believe, for example, there are apparently sources selling pot marjoram (a wildly inferior cousin) as true oregano. But even beyond basic errors (or frauds) like that, there are many questions about what "true" oregano is. There are, still according to the Herb Society, about eight true Origanum species regularly used as culinary "oregano".

Are we having fun yet? No? Well, skipping over a lot of intermediate steps, which the curious and patient can re-trace from the links list given farther below, there seems to us to be only one type of "oregano" of real interest (not counting true marjoram, which is usually considered a separate herb--we don't bother with it because it strikes us as being basically a wimp's oregano, but if you don't like strong flavors, you might want to grow marjoram instead of, or in addition to, oregano--its culture is identical.)

The Origanum species of prime interest is usually called "Greek"; that term can, though, include many kinds. What the real oregano fancier will want is what is often listed as Origanum heracleoticum, though also sometimes as Originum vulgare hirtum. As you see, in the scientific name as we gave it way above, the hirtum distinguishes "true Greek" oregano from more ordinary kinds, though the appellation O. heracleoticum seems more reliable as an indicator (see how messy this is?).

While we're doing this, let's tick down a few other oregano types that can confuse the seeker after oregano flavor.

The "oregano" often referred to as "Italian oregano", when we brush aside the seedsmen's puffery, turns out to be Origanum x majoricum, which is to say a cross between true oregano and pot marjoram. Naturally, it is puffed as "milder" and "sweeter" oregano, whereas it is just--as we see it--watered down oregano.

Another type, labelled as "Greek" and called Kaliteri (which, as the seedsmen invariably remind one, is Greek for "the best") is apparently O. onites, which the Herb Society says is "Turkish oregano/rigani"; curiously, an expert herbalist lists O. rigani as "Greek oregano", and adds that "In the past, this oregano was often referred to as Pot Marjoram." Well, well. In other words, it's just another watered-down oregano.

And finally, anything from a nation south of the U.S. that is called "oregano" is almost surely not even an Origanum species at all (which is not to say that all such stuff is awful--most such plants have some of the same flavoring oil as dominates oregano--but oregano it is not.

Class adjourned.

In sum, what one wants is "true Greek oregano" with a definite species label of either Origanum heracleoticum (preferable because most certain) or Originum vulgare hirtum. The end.


Planting

Oregano is notoriously highly variable when grown from seed, so purchase of a plant from a reliable herb and spice specialist house is almost mandatory, with an emphasis on the "reliable" part (even the seedsmen get sent false varieties, and we must rely on them to spot those and send us only wnat we really have ordered).

Oregano is not at all fussy about soil conditions, save the usual requirement that it be well-drained. It has reportedly a slight preference for lightly alkaline soils, but few worry much about that. As with most herbs, average to poor soils produce the most concentrated flavors.


Growing

Water sparingly, as with most herbs.

To maintain its vigor, it is wise to divide the plant every few years; autumn or spring are the best times for division.

This is another herb set back by cooking, and so best added to any dish just shortly before serving it.


Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful.


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