Mediterranean Kitchen & Garden Delights
Edible or ornamental, perennial oreganos are among my favorite easy-going border edgers. Deer and disease resistant, their long lasting flowers are always lovely and sometimes fabulous, even (or especially) in their dried stage, making them a welcome addition to the winter garden as well. Perhaps because they come from stony, sun blasted Mediterranean regions, all oreganos look especially beautiful when partnered with rocks and grasses. For a dazzling display, pair Hopley’s Purple oregano with pink Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), or partner Barbara Tingey oregano with Mexican feather grass (Nasella tenuissma) and wait for the wows.
A happy spreader, oregano grows best in full sun and open, well drained soil. Most forms do better in poor, lean soils than in rich ones; excess nutrients and water dilute their zesty flavors, and heavy soils can make oreganos prone to root rots. In my garden, they are especially flavorful and beautiful when grown in sandy loam, with a generous top dressing of aged dairy manure. For the kitchen, harvest foliage before the plants bloom, removing about half of each stem (usually 2-4 inches from the non-woody parts). Dry in hanging bunches in a warm, dry, dim place, or in wetter climates/summers, dry them on racks or screens so the leaves dry evenly and don’t mold(!). Freeze, well packaged, for a year or even more, or store in tightly sealed jars in a dim cool place for up to 6 months.
Your Basic Kitchen Oregano
The mother of our kitchen oreganos is Origanum vulgare, native throughout Europe and the Mediterranean and into Asia. A traditional medicinal plant, it’s also been a common culinary herb for thousands of years. Many of its forms and subspecies have been selected and preserved by gardeners and cooks and today, a little searching will introduce you to oreganos that offer a surprisingly wide range of tastes and textures.
The straight species forms dense mounds of aromatic, deep green foliage, threaded in summer with soft purple flowers on slim stems up to 2 feet high. Though less assertive than Greek oreganos, most forms of O. vulgare have a lively flavor. A handsome form called Hot and Spicy is similar in size, with a pronounced bite that makes it perfect for pizza and pasta dishes. There are quite a few variegated forms of which Aureum Gold is is especially pretty in the spring, spreading in joyful splashes of clear lemony yellow. Golden Crinkled (O. vulgare crispum) is quite compact (to about 6”) and the quilted leaves are lovely in salads. Taller (6-12”) and subtly gilded, Jim Best is probably an O. vulgare form with a savory, spicy flavor that’s great in dressings, rubs, and salt blends. Westacre Gold (O. vulgare variegata) boasts old gold foliage and rosy flowers on foot-high, copper-pink stems. Another form called Variegated (also O. vulgare variegata) marries olive green leaves edged with butter and cream with white to pink flowers.
A tiny-leaved creeping oregano, Mini Compact (Origanum humile), has equally miniature flowers from spring into midsummer. It makes 6-inch mounds that look at home in the rock garden and do well in kitchen garden containers, where its delicate sprigs are often gathered for tasty garnishes. As with any plant with so much variation and human history, there is some discussion about the legitimacy of various names. Some folks insist that Origanum compacta (or sometimes compactum) nana and Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum Humile are identical, though different nurseries sell quite different plants under each of these names. I’ve ordered both plants from different nurseries and what I received were always different plants.
The version I’m growing as Greek Kaliteri (Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum) has fuzzy silver leaves on rather open mounds, with tall bloom stalks. This one has amazing flavor, especially if grown a bit dry. It was imported, not surprisingly, from Greece, where it is a commercial crop for high-end herb sellers. Kaliteri means “the best” in Greek and I believe it! My form of Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum is sold as Greek oregano, which it is, being a wild form collected from Greek mountainsides. This one has smooth green leaves with rich, spicy flavor that makes it a kitchen favorite with anything that includes tomatoes. A compact, carpeting green leaved form from Crete called Greek Mountain Oregano (O. herocleoticum) is prized as both a medicinal and culinary herb. A full flavored Italian Oregano is the one to sprinkle over sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella as well as pizza.
Marjorams are hardy perennial oregano cousins with a sweeter, gentler flavor. Fresh foliage of Sweet Hardy Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is tender and mild, and I often use them whole in salads and on sandwiches or minced for dressings. A Middle Eastern Mediterranean species, Origanum syriaca, has several heritage forms, including Zaatar marjoram, with thick, fuzzy leaves and purple stems. It has a complex flavor that suggests sweet marjoram blended with sharper oregano, with perhaps a hint of thyme. A sister form called Cleopatra is suitably stylish, making lovely mounds of silvery foliage that is delicious fresh or dried. Cleo tastes a bit minty, making the chopped leaves pleasant in salads and as a beautiful garnish.
These hardy perennials are mostly edible but usually not as tasty as the culinary varieties. Their role is to provide fascinating textures and subtle color, which they do brilliantly. As it happens, my dear Hopley’s Purple (Origanum laevigatum) is as tasty as it is pretty, an effortless edger that looks good for most of the year. Kent Beauty (O. rotundifolium x O. scabrum) spills its darling pink and green bracts in ruffled clusters above grey-green foliage. Showiest in a hanging basket or positioned on a slope, this bushy little herb smells better than it tastes. A sister version of the same cross, Barbara Tingey boasts blue-grey foliage and similarly tinted bracts that overlap to form rounded balls that dangle from wiry stems like cat toys. Another hybrid, Amethyst Falls, offers chartreuse to silvery pink, hoplike bracts, overlapping like fish scales, each involucre plump and tapering as magical mermaids tails and tipped with a flurry of shocking pink florets.
A highly ornamental form of culinary oregano, Bristol Grass (sometimes sold as Bristol Cross), combines fine-textured foliage with long-stemmed, slim bracts shaded green to pale purple, with swinging floral skirts of lively pink. It’s especially good in hanging baskets or tall containers and, not surprisingly, is delicious as well as intriguingly good looking. Finally, a charming Greek wildflower, Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus), makes a stunning little rock garden plant, its silver frosted foliage setting off cascades of pink bracts ending in silvery lavender flowers. Tenderest of all the oreganos I’ve grown, dittany demands extremely sharp drainage and full sun all day. Bon appetite!