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How Greek Was My Oregano

August 03, 1995|SYLVIA THOMPSON

I regard oreganos as the Harleys of the herb world. Vroom vroom! In fact, Greek oregano is so lusty, on hot summer nights you can almost hear bouzouki music thrumming from the patch.

I hear you say, "What's this Greek oregano? What's Greek about it? Isn't oregano just oregano?"

No way. There are at least nine different species of the genus Origanum. You get the feeling that when botanical names were handed out the naming committee had drunk its share of ouzo. The Latin name Origanum is translated as marjoram. The only herb called oregano in English is Origanum vulgare --also known as marjoram, pot marjoram and wild marjoram.

So we're talking marjorams here. Specifically, pot marjorams. Greek oregano, O. heracloticum or O. hirtum , is also called pot marjoram. And so is Origanum onites , which is also known as Cretan oregano, Italian oregano or rigani --which happens to be the modern Greek pronunciation of origanum . (I wonder, did the naming committee throw their glasses into the fireplace afterward?)

Now, language is a living thing. Academics can tell us that we should use this word and not that, but when another word suits, we use it. Native to dry rocky places, the leaves on these small shrubs have--to a greater or lesser degree--a sunny/musky/minty flavor. The "to a greater or lesser degree" is the crux of the matter. As the plants have found their way into our gardens and kitchens, names have sorted themselves out. Delicate "marjorams" wave demurely as macho "oreganos" thrum by, vroom vroom!

Then there's the exception that makes the rule--sort of. Remember, the official first name of just plain oregano-- O. vulgare --means just plain marjoram. You'll find it in catalogues listed both ways. Native from Europe to Central Asia, it's an extremely variable species. Usually its flavor is mild at best, but I understand that when grown in a Mediterranean soil and climate, its leaves are filled with flavor.


Which brings up an important point: When setting anything in your garden, especially herbs, try to approximate its native conditions--create a microclimate. That's why I like to tell you where a plant comes from. When, in the Companion Plants catalogue, the flavor of Cretan oregano--native to southeastern Europe, Turkey and Syria--is described as a cross between oregano and marjoram, how much of that middling is in the leaf itself, and how much in the fact that it's grown in Athens, Ohio, and not Athens, Greece?

Leaves on these plants are small and charming, heart-shaped without the indentation at top, from 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches long. The blooms, which come midsummer, are tiny whitish or mauvish stars clustered at the tips of the stalks. Buds and flowers are not only edible but also as flavorful as the leaves. Mauve-tinted sprays are particularly appealing over cream-colored fish and poultry.

Another species with oregano-flavored leaves mercifully doesn't confuse us with the M or O words: Dittany of Crete. This is a thrilling plant. Its leaves are silvery, round and woolly, and richly fragrant when you crush them . . . but I've never been able to pick one for cooking--they're that beautiful.

And the flowers! Actually, they're not flowers but bracts, modified leaves that form a cascade of small bells shaded from chartreuse to pink to burnished copper. While the other oregano-flavored plants I've mentioned grow upright, Dittany of Crete is pendulous--heavenly in a hanging basket.

Then if you want an oregano-flavored herb in your garden, choose O. heracleoticum/hirtum (Greek oregano), O. Onites (Cretan oregano) or O. dictamnus (dittany of Crete). You can start the first, a hardy perennial, from seed in spring or fall. Start the second and third, both tender perennials, from plants. All should be set in warm soil. Herb nurseries offer other cultivars they describe as flavorful oreganos, but I haven't tasted them, so I'll leave you to try them.

Do not, however, look to something called Mexican oregano. It's not even a member of the Mint family like all the marjorams; it's a verbena. As lusty as it may be, true oregano it ain't.

But I do want to tell you about a bit of serendipity. A month ago, cruising through herbs in a nursery, I bought something labeled Purple Oregano. The leaves have more blue to their green than I've seen, the wiry stems are wine red and the tiny flowers are neon purply pink (they remind me of dyed straw flowers I had as a child).

I planted it in full sun in pure decomposed granite with a boulder behind it, and it's happy as a clam. The flavor is a tad less emphatic than Greek oregano, but it's tasty. It has a stiff habit of growth, and I notice that, in true mint family fashion, stems are already sprouting around the base. (Vroom, vroom.) I've just learned that it's O. laevigatum , and a hardy, vigorous English cultivar named Hopley's Purple. I love it.

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