Oregano or Marjoram, which is it?

If you are a classification nerd and like to know exactly what it is you are planting in your herb garden, Oregano or Marjoram could drive you over the edge.  Both listed under the genus Origanum, the physical similarity of the plants and the difficulty of proper identification has been historically a problem.  It doesn’t help that the common names are interchangeable within the classified hybrids.  For example “Italian Oregano” can also be called “Hardy Sweet Marjoram.”  No less than the august organization, The Herb Society of America, took on the challenge of sorting out the classification of oreganos and marjoram.  If you want to be really nerdy, you can download their sixty-six page PDF listing classifications as well as the history and care of these popular herbs. (http://www.herbsociety.org/herbs/profiles-and-guides.html)  As quoted in the document “It’s best to think of oregano as a flavor rather than a genus or species.” (1)

Left Image: "Greek Oregano", Right Image: "Golden Oregano"

Left Image: "Greek Oregano", Right Image: "Golden Oregano"

But for most of us, our main interest is in the taste of Oregano and Marjoram.  These two herbs can be interchangeable in recipes but Oregano is the stronger of the two. I like the stronger taste of “Greek Oregano” (Origanum hirtum) and when it is dried, it becomes even more pungent.  This intensity is best showcased in spaghetti and pizza sauces.  “Hot and Spicy”, a variety usually available at the Multnomah MG Chapter’s Incredible Edible Sale in May, steps the heat up even further.  A sweeter, milder taste more like Sweet Marjoram is produced by Italian Oregano (O x majoricum).  Either dried or fresh, it is a nice addition to salad dressings, herbed rice or couscous and fresh fruit salads.  Before purchasing plant starts or creating cuttings from existing plants, it’s a good idea to break off a couple of the Oregano or Marjoram leaves to taste and decide if it is to your liking.  Marjoram Sweet “Zaatar” (Origanum syriacum), also available at local nurseries and the IE sale, combines the taste of marjoram, oregano and thyme.  So your taste buds have some work to do.

In addition to flavoring our food, several varieties of Oregano and Marjoram can be added to the garden for color interest and for attracting beneficial insects.  Though not recommended for kitchen use, Golden Creeping Marjoram (O. vulgare “Aureum”) and Golden Oregano (O. vulgare “Dr. Ietswaart”) produce a nearly chartreuse green that is a great contrast to darker greens featured in the garden. (Photo 2)  “Kent Beauty” (Origanum rotundifolium) is an ornamental version of Oregano that is familiar to many and a favorite for container gardening.  In pots or in the ground, Oreganos and Marjoram love well draining soils and sun to partial shade.  They are also drought tolerant. It is wise to prune new growth several times a year to promote new growth for a continuous harvest.  Otherwise you can let them flower and these popular and indispensible herbs will attract a horde of bees and an occasional hummingbird.

Footnote: 1.      Tucker, Arthur O.  1992 “Will the real oregano please stand up?”.  The Herb Companion 4(3): 20-22