HISTORICAL HINTS: Also known as wild or sweet marjoram, it belongs to the Lamiaceae family. The different species and varieties of oregano, which are mostly native to the Mediterranean area and to the temperate Asia, are now widespread in many regions of the world even if called with different local names. The generic name Origanum comes from the Greek words oros (mountain) and ganao (joy, satisfaction), a reference to the fact that this perfumed plant easily prosperates on often rocky and bare slopes and it represents a joy for the sight and for the smell. In Greece, branches are used to create crowns which the groom and the bride wear on their wedding. A nice Greek legend about the mythic origin of this plant relates that a young servant, named Amaraco, who lived by the court of the King of Cyprus and was responsible for perfumes, was ordered to bring to the King a very precious essence so to surprise his guests; while he was walking the young man stumbled and fell to the floor breaking the glass bottle. The desperate Amaraco allowed himself to die so the Gods, touched by his self-sacrifice, transformed him into the oregano plant, giving him the perfume that had provoked his death. Aristotle reported that after catching snakes, turtles used to eat oregano, so from here the legend that oregano was an antidote against snake venom. Greeks and Romans used to put it into bath water to deodorize, to stimulate the tired body and to purify skin; they also used essential oil to give massages, to disinfect and preserve. Probably, these populations spread the use oregano in all Europe, while thanks to British pioneers it reached America too. Bunches of Oregano marjoram, native to North Africa was put around the throat during the plague and other epidemic periods.
THE PLANT - Oregano (origanum vulgare) is a perennial shrub of the Lamiaceae family. It grows in big bushes with many herbaceous stems; its extremely perfumed small leaves are oval shaped with a small stalk. Pink flowers, gathered in small globe ears, blossom during spring and summer on top of the branches. Oregano stalk can reach 60-80 cm of height and it can be found spontaneously in forests, among other bushes, commonly in uncultivated soils, in marine and sunny areas, but only in the south oregano can reach the full aromatic intensity. Oregano blooms from June to September when plants areharvested, collected in bunches and dried up-side-down in shady and ventilated places. Flowered tops and leaves are used and stored in ceramic or glass pots.
ORIGANUM VULGARE this is the variety that we know and buy as “oregano” both for culinary and for therapeutic purposes. A huge amount of varieties exist, both for ornamental and for therapeutic uses. Origanum Vulgare aureum is used for culinary purposes and has golden leaves in summertime. Origanum vulgare hirtum or heracleoticum, widespread in Italy, in peninsular Asia and in Balkan countries, has hairy leaves and white flowers. ORIGANUM ONITES it is very common in Greece, Turkey and Asia as aromatic plant, even though it is less aromatic and flavoured than origanum vulgare because onites is bitterer and more persistent. Onites and Vulgaris have almost the same therapeutic properties.
ORIGANUM COMPACTUM it is commonly considered as a variety of Oreganum vulgare and it is a short variety, exclusively used as aromatic.
ORIGANUM DICTAMNUS Native to the isle of Crete where it grows over 500 m on the level of the sea, it is used almost exclusively as aromatic plant having a more delicate flavour than Origanum vulgare, in fact, it is used to aromatize vermouth and its leaves are added to season salads. Flowers make a very perfumed tea and leaves infusion is considered a panacea in Crete.
Other species are: ORIGANUM SYRIACUM, which is not very used in Italy because its flavour is a mix of oregano, marjoram and thyme. In Jordan, “zahtar” – a mix of seasoning herbs whose main spice is thyme - is much known but it is not used with therapeutic purposes. ORIGANUM GLANDULOSUM, ORIGANUM ISTHMICUM, ORIGANUM VIRENS, are not very used for aromatic purposed and not used at all for therapeutic purposes.
PROPERTIES - Known since past times, oregano had a good employ in Roman cuisine. It has been used also in the following years but mostly in the South. Not only is oregano important for its use in food preparation but also for its several therapeutic properties. Its active principles are mainly phenol, thymol, carvacrol together with other fats, proteins, mineral salts, vitamins and carbohydrates. Its medicinal properties are: analgesic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, expectorant, stomachic, and tonic. Oregano essential oil is very used in aromatherapy and its infusion is useful against cough, migraine, digestive, and rheumatic problems having an anti-inflammatory action. Oregano is also a good repellent for ants: it is sufficient to replace it frequently to solve the problem. In the flower language, oregano has always been a plant giving relieve, comfort and health. Medicinal properties and qualities of oregano are several: the essential oil is efficacious and stimulating on the nervous system; it stimulates gastric secretion, it eases painful intestinal contractions eliminating gases. Oregano has a sedative action on the respiratory system concerning cough and has a mild purifying action. Thanks to its penetrating perfume, it was also used in medicine as disinfectant during epidemics, and burned in braziers together with thyme and mint. The spread of oregano towards the north is quite recent and corresponds with the spread of pizza.
CULINARY USE - Oregano is extensively used to aromatize meat, fish, mushrooms, vegetables, etc. … it is a fundamental ingredient of traditional pizzas as margherita (tomatoes, mozzarella and oregano) or napoletana but it can also be used in the preparation of tomato sauce and fresh season salads and of many other Mediterranean dishes; oregano can also aromatize cooked or row dishes, cheese, tomato salads, to preserve vegetables, with products in oil and in vinegar and in digestive liqueurs.