Oregano is a perennial herb with erect, green stems and white or purplish flowers. Its flavourful leaves and flowering tops are used to make culinary seasoning. When dried, they have a sharp aroma and a sweet taste that reminds some people of a cross between mint and thyme. A few oregano plants hung near the front door are all you need to infuse your house with a welcoming fragrance, especially when the weather turns cold.
Oregano is closely related to both marjoram and mint. The Latin name origanum derives from the Greek word organon, which was applied by Dioscorides (1st-century ad) to an herb used in classical times as a fumigant and purgative. The name is still used for many species of Origanum, but it is more precisely applied to O. vulgare.
A member of the mint family, oregano arrived in North America with Spanish settlers centuries ago. It has naturalized throughout much of Mexico and the Mediterranean, particularly along the coasts of Italy and North Africa. Oregano ranks with basil as one of the most popular culinary herbs in Italy. It is also widely used in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, Crete, Bulgaria, and Macedonia.
Oregano is native to the Mediterranean region and western Asia. It has naturalized throughout much of Mexico and the United States. Greece is by far the leading commercial producer, providing more than 60 percent of the total European market.
Oregano is widely cultivated as a garden herb, but it also grows wild, particularly on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. It thrives in dry soils and full sun. Its flavourful leaves are harvested at the time of flowering, some individual plants producing white flowers and others pink or purplish blooms.
The herb is much valued in the kitchen. It is used to make bouquet garni and also appears as a fresh or dried seasoning for many foods, especially spaghetti sauce, Italian dishes, pizza, chorizo sausage, chili, poultry stuffing, and stews. Oregano can also be combined with olive oil and garlic to produce a potent sauce. When used with feta cheese, oregano makes a relish for bread or crackers.
Oregano is also available in beverages, seasoning extracts, and oils. Oregano enhances the flavor of lemon juice.