Jane McLeod: Joy of the mountain

Plant hard to tell if it's oregano or marjoram

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— Although two distinctly different plants, closely related oregano and marjoram have been confused through their long histories.

Native to the Mediterranean regions, many of these countries did not make a clear distinction between the two aromatic herbs. Part of the confusion also stems from the fact that both are from the same family (the very large mint family) and both now have the same genus name, origanum. (Apparently marjoram once had a different genus name but it was dropped). It was the Greeks who gave a name to this ancient culinary herb: oros ganos, translated as "joy of the mountain" for the sweeps of wild marjoram (oregano) that covered the higher altitude hillsides profusely scenting the summer air.

Most experts - but not all - classify oregano (Origanum vulgare) as wild marjoram - one variety of marjoram. Similar in looks, the best way to distinguish between the two and ignore the knotty problem of oregano's botanic family tree is by flavor. Marjoram is mild mannered, and oregano has a big bite. Oregano is almost known more for its flavor than as a plant. The Greeks, Italians and Spanish were the first to fall in love with the robust essence of oregano and used it creatively in their cuisines. It is best used in hardier dishes and with foods (pizza and spaghetti sauce come to mind) where its sharp flavor is not overpowering. Unlike most other herbs, it often is preferred dried rather than fresh. The dried herb stands up very well to the heat of cooking.

Culinary oregano is a perennial in hot climates but grows here as a hardy annual as it won't manage a deep-freeze. Again, all these hot climate herbs do best when gardeners mimic as best as possible their native habitat. Plant oregano in light, very well-drained, nutrient-rich and somewhat alkaline soil in full sun. Oregano thrives on little to moderate water, and too much water combined with poor drainage easily will cause root rot.

Oregano can grow to a height of 2 feet, but more commonly we see 6 to 9 inches with a slightly sprawling growth habit. It has dark green peppery-flavored soft oval leaves that grow in pairs along the stem, and by summer or fall, clusters of pretty pink flowers cover the plant. Oregano leaves are best picked just when the flower buds first appear.

There are more than 40 species of oregano existing around the world, but the influence of climate on the composition of the essential oil in the leaves is great. If you have an oregano plant that is a culinary zero, it could be a lack of ideal growing conditions or because a lot of the cultivars adapted to colder climates did not translate well from the seeds originally collected from wild marjoram. Experiment with different varieties for flavor or stick to the dried version.

The medicinal benefits of oregano are numerous and have been in practice for centuries. Today, certain oreganos are being commercially cultivated for their strong anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antioxidant properties. Whether it is culinary, medicinal or one of the many showy ornamentals, oregano has a place in the garden. Consider planting oregano to bring some joy to our mountain gardens.

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