When the abundant moisture of spring has given way to drier summer conditions, it’s time to plant oregano. Both culinary and decorative — it’s delicate blossoms will attract pollinators to your garden as well as make for attractive additions to salads — oregano is one of the most rewarding herbs to grow. It can be started from seed, but buying plants is the easiest way to get them started (they can also be propagated from cuttings or from root divisions).
Oregano is hardy to zone 5 and can be overwintered in zone 4 with a thick covering of straw or mulch. It’s a perennial and will provide tasty leaves and flowers for years before it becomes too woody and sharply flavored. To encourage longevity, cut plants back almost to the ground at the end of the growing season. Often grown in containers, oregano also grows well in terraces and rock gardens. A Mediterranean plant, it likes full sun but will tolerate some shade, as I found out growing it in an old tub under a pear tree in the Pacific Northwest. Oregano isn’t fussy about soil conditions but does require good drainage. It needs little water and is perfect for moisture-sensitive xeriscapes.
Accept no substitutes! For true, full flavor, choose Greek Oregano (Origanum heracleoticum), which adds significant oomph to your prized dishes. Easy to grow, reaches 18-30 inches tall, and is a perennial in zones 4-9. Certified organic!
Attractive as it can be, oregano plants should be chosen for flavor. Best way to know if the oregano you’re buying is worthy? Pluck a leaf or two and taste it. Warm summer days and plenty of sunshine will intensify the flavor of oregano but even the best conditions won’t improve the taste of an inferior oregano. The commonly available Greek or wild oregano (Oiganum vulgare) has a nice sharp flavor. Italian or Sicilian oregano is a cross-breed with marjoram (close cousin and often mistaken for oregano) and is great in tomato sauces and on pizzas. And, yes, its flowers are edible.
Save oregano using a food dryer or by placing a couple handfuls of the leaf in a brown paper grocery bag and clipping the top closed. Put in a warm spot — Jim Long, author of Growing & Using the Top 10 Most Popular Herbs, recommends the trunk of your car. Check them every five days or so for crispness. When they crumble between your fingers, they’re ready. You can also clip the stems, hang them upside down in a bundle and let the wind and sunshine do the work.
The health benefits of oregano are gaining more and more attention. My grandmother used to recommend chewing oregano to relieve toothache. Oregano oil has even been found to work against drug-resistant bacteria. Making oregano oil requires sophisticated distilling equipment but a simpler and less potent version can be made by infusing olive oil with oregano leaves. Find more on oregano here and here.