Oregano & Marjoram
OREGANO AND SWEET MARJORAM
(Origanum vulgare and Origanum majorana)
by SCMG Stephanie Wrightson
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) and sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana) are closely related perennial culinary herbs. In some cuisines, they are used interchangeably for seasoning. There is no best herb – it all depends on your palate and cultural culinary preferences.
Both oregano and sweet marjoram are cultivated for their aromatic leaves which can be used fresh or dried. And, both plants are relatively problem-free. Marjoram is a good alternative if oregano is too sharp or spicy for you. When compared to oregano, I find marjoram to be milder and sweeter but slightly piney. If there is room in your food garden, plant both like I do. Two notes: 1) Oregano vulgare is the common culinary variety of oregano. Some culinary oregano may be stronger or more pungent in taste (e.g., O. v. syriacum, hirtum or onites). And there are some oregano varieties grown primarly for their ornamental rather than culinary value (e.g., O. v. gracile). 2) I find that my recipes using marjoram call for “sweet marjoram” which is O. majorana. Italian marjoram (O. x majoricum) is a cross between sweet marjoram and oregano and is more winter-hardy than sweet marjoram.
Oregano and sweet marjoram will appreciate a sunny location and well-drained soil. Variegated leaf varieties benefit from some afternoon shade. One plant of each is sufficient for most families. Space them about 18 inches apart to provide good air circulation. You likely will have success no matter what time of year you transplant. If you have a generous friend with an herb garden, you can propagate from a division from his/her plant or from a cutting prior to bloom. If herbs are used for culinary purposes, provide plants moderate water. If grown for non-culinary purposes (e.g., to attract beneficial insects or to provide aroma to an ornamental garden), these herbs have low-water requirements.
For best leaf flavor, do not allow oregano and sweet marjoram to flower. Pinch them back or shear about one-third of the new spring growth in early May to keep the plants compact and tidy-looking. If not regularly snipped for kitchen use, they may require a light sheering multiple times over a long growing period. Oregano, especially, becomes woody with leathery leaves at the base if not kept compact. You can cut woody stems to the ground in winter or very early spring. It is the soft stems and leaves that provide a culinary punch to a dish. One friend said that she found her culinary oregano to be invasive. I have not had that experience…probably due to regular use and sheering.
In general, both are hardy herbs in Sonoma County. However, sweet marjoram will not withstand a freeze; if your food garden is located in a cold winter microclimate, grow marjoram as an annual or in a pot; or plant Italian marjoram. Fresh leaves will be available for much of the year but you may wish to dry them for winter use (click here for instructions). Properly dried and stored, oregano and sweet marjoram leaves will have a shelf-life of about one year.
For healthier meals, increase herbs and lower salt amounts. As a general rule, tender, milder, more succulent leaves are added at the end of the cooking process or are used fresh which is typical of dishes calling for marjoram. Hardier leaves (and whole leafy stems to be removed later) are added early in the cooking process as is common in dishes calling for oregano.
Fresh and dried oregano and sweet marjoram can be used to season many regional cuisines. Turn greens into a Greek salad by using chopped herbs and a low-fat yogurt dressing. Home-cooked pizzas will be amazing with fresh chopped oregano in the sauce. A sprig of fresh marjoram can be added when roasting lamb. Combine oregano or sweet marjoram with other herbs to season frittatas, stews and soups, or put your own twist on Herbes de Provence. Spice up salad dressing with fresh chopped marjoram.