Jane McLeod: Marjoram - the happy cousin

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Another native of the Mediterranean regions, marjoram, according to lore, was created as a symbol of happiness by the goddess of love Aphrodite. Used extensively by the ancient Greeks for medicinal and cosmetic purposes, and introduced into England in the Middle Ages, it was soon in demand for nosegays, potpourri, washing waters and for garlands to crown bridal couples. It was popular in knot gardens, and in the 18th century was one of the 'sweet herbs' used with meats and savory dishes.

Even the scent of marjoram was thought to maintain good health and, up until the early 1930s, marjoram tea frequently was drunk as a tonic (to soothe colds, headaches, stomachs and 'nervous' conditions) in country homes in England. Large quantities still are gathered and hung to dry in Kent and other counties for making tea, but 90 percent of the world's commercial supply comes from Egypt. As a culinary herb, marjoram only has been popular here for a short time.

There are many types of marjoram, but it is sweet or knotted marjoram (Origanum majorana) that is grown predominantly for culinary use.

It has both a sweet and spicy but mild flavor with downy pale gray-green leaves and white or purplish flowers that burst from tiny green 'knots' that form where the leaves join the stem. There also is Pot or French marjoram (O. onites), a dainty low-growing plant with mid-green colored leaves that are stronger flavored and Winter marjoram (O. heracleoticum) with a flavor similar to Wild marjoram (cousin oregano) but milder. Additionally, there are a variety of ornamental types of marjoram suitable for rock gardens and hanging baskets such as a variegated plant (O.v. 'Variegatum'), splashed with gold, and producing pale pink to white flowers or a true gold leafed marjoram (O.v. 'Aureum') that unfortunately sometimes scorches in full sun.

Hardy as a perennial only in warm climates, sweet marjoram generally is grown as an annual. It grows about eight inches high and is a compact busy plant with small leaves and flowers. The whole plant is strongly aromatic. Two growing tips to adhere to: Marjoram prefers slightly damper soil conditions (mulch to retain moisture), and give it lots of breathing space as this plant doesn't like being overcrowded either by weeds or other plants. Weed gently so as not to disturb the shallow root system. All types of marjoram like to be planted in full sun (gold leaf varieties need midday shade) in a light, rich soil unlike most other herbs in the same family, marjoram has a stronger flavor when grown in rich soil. Pick young leaves any time, but they are strongest at the flower's bud stage. This plant does well in a container and can be brought indoors for use in the winter.

Marjoram complements other herbs and is suitable for meats, fish, poultry, salads, salad dressings and anything with tomatoes. Chop the fresh leaves (discarding the woody stems first) and add at the end of cooking. Marjoram's uses are endless, and in a culinary dish, a cup of tea, or strewn in your tub - marjoram will start or end your day with a little happiness.

Jane McLeod is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or email: gardeners@co.routt.co.us

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