Outstanding Oreganos and Mild-Mannered Marjoram

Cultivate culinary delight with Origanum, the 2005 Herb of the Year.

| April/May 2005

  • Jerry Pavia

  • David Cavagnaro

  • David Cavagnaro

  • Dawna Edwards

  • Dawna Edwards

  • Dawna Edwards

  • David Cavagnaro

I have cultivated the Origanums for more than 20 years, but last year I began collecting them in earnest. As I write this, I have a collection of 32 origanum plants from the United States and Canada: Half of the plants — the hardy specimens — are out in the garden and the other half — tender perennials here in Zone 7 — are in pots in my greenhouse.

Cultivating these versatile plants is a pleasure, and one of the things I love about collecting them is how it brings me together with other gardeners. I bought (or was given) many of my plants in 2 1/2-inch pots from Francesco DeBaggio in Chantilly, Virginia, who is carrying on the herbal business of his father, Thomas DeBaggio. Other plants were bought from or shared by growers across the country and in Canada. Probably the best plants are starts or clumps like the ones I brought home in my suitcase from the Ozark Folk Center Heritage Herb Gardens in Mountain View, Arkansas from my gardening friend Tina Marie Wilcox. A few years back I also received some starts from Madalene Hill and the Festival Institute gardens in Round Top, Texas.

As well as sharing plants, I enjoy observing these plants’ character traits and sharing this information with other gardeners. I also love delving into the history, lore, medicinal qualities and botany of each new plant genus. I learn a lot from the Internet and a plethora of great herbal tomes, but I’m also especially thankful for all of the experts in our Herb Companion family of buddies who are willing to help us understand the botany through their personal examples. I find the entire process thrilling and presently I am deeply immersed in the origanums. If you’d like to join our ongoing origanum discussion, please visit our online forum at www.HerbCompanion.com.

Studying these herbs is a sensory experience. I have smelled and tasted all 32 of the origanums in my collection, even though many are ornamental, not culinary. They range from bland-tasting to very pungent. There are a number of ornamental origanums that I would not be without in the garden, though most of them are not very tasty in the kitchen. However, I do use some of their gorgeous blooms as edible flower garnishes.

Origanum majorana

Marjoram’s bouquet is citrus first, with some sweet and spicy floral notes, followed by a bit of thyme. Its flavor is mildly resinous, hinting of thyme, balsam and pine with a lingering sweetness. Marjoram gets its flowery smell and taste from linalool and sabinene; it is not hot like some oreganos because it has much less carvacrol, a chemical that, in large amounts, numbs the tongue. Marjoram’s aroma and versatility in the kitchen allow the cook a huge range of flavor combinations. Marjoram, like thyme, has a roundness and balance of sweet and savory that make it useful in brightening the flavor of almost any dish without altering the food’s essence. Marjoram adds a mellow depth of flavor, much different from that of a hot, spicy oregano. Marjoram and thyme are both kitchen companions of mine: when I want an herb flavor that is not overly assertive, this duo adds just the right blend of spice with a touch of sweetness. I add marjoram to sauces, soups, vegetables, casseroles, salads and salad dressings, breads and even desserts.

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