Origanum — Ornamental Oregano
Some oreganos are meant to savor and season while others are meant to admire. Originating in areas around the Mediterranean Basin, both types have identical cultural needs and do well in Sonoma County with its similar climate. (For information on culinary oreganos, see “Oregano & Marjoram” under Food Gardening Articles on the Master Gardener web page.)
All ornamental types are mildly clump-forming perennials that bloom on thin stems from late spring into autumn. Pink to purple blossoms are attractive, fragrant, and attract butterflies and bees. After dying back, stems can be cut down in late winter; in early spring the growth cycle begins again.
Oreganos like full sun and poor to moderately fertile soil with exceptionally good drainage. Once established they need very little water and can be killed if over-watered or over-fertilized. They make excellent plants for water-wise gardening. To avoid crown rot from standing water in heavy soil, plant on raised mounds.
Of the several species and cultivars, various oreganos can be planted in containers, as sprawling groundcovers, and as front-of-the-border plants in perennial beds. Because they have wispy stems, ornamental oreganos are suitable for hanging baskets and for cascading over walls or romping around rocks.
Origanum laevigatum ‘Hopley’s’ stands erect on woody-based stems 24 to 36 inches high when given support; otherwise, it flops over and becomes rangy. Stems lying on moist ground may root as they sprawl, but they remain under control when plants are heavily mulched. It has small dark green leaves and panicle-like, deep pink to purple flowers at stem ends. ‘Hopley’s’ is excellent for cutting, especially when added to an aromatic bouquet. ‘Herrenhausen’ is similar with reddish purple leaves but with larger lilac-pink flower clusters.
All aspects of Origanum rotundifolium ‘Kent Beauty’ are more compact than the sprawling ‘Hopley’s.’ Blossoms also form on stem ends, but the similarity stops there. Its pale green, prostrate and trailing stems are shorter and the entire plant is denser. Deep rose bracts encircle small pale pink to mauve flowers suggestive of papery cones or blossoms on hop vines. It can also be planted at the front of the border or retaining wall, among rocks, in hanging baskets and other containers.
Dittany of Crete, Origanum dictamnus, has a similar appearance to ‘Kent Beauty’ despite its overall larger form. Wiry stems bear thick, felty foliage, and pink-to-purple blossoms extend beyond a panicle of greenish bracts.