Oregano is an herb cultivated in many countries for use in cooking for its trademark spicy, warm flavor. It is an easy-to-grow herb and can be found growing wild in many instances. It is sometimes called marjoram, and is a perennial that creeps, and forms woody stems that are hardy in cold climates.
Early Greeks used oregano, and called it origanum, or "mountain joy." Both wild and cultivated, it was used medicinally as a remedy for poisoning and seizures. Its leaves were symbolic of happiness to Greeks and Romans, and were used as wreaths for young couples. It is noted in medieval histories as “sweet marjoram,” and at that time was used for scenting washwater, clothing and hair, and for strewing on floors to fragrance rooms.
Oregano has been used as a medicine, a flavoring or spice in cooking, an aromatic herb for cleaning and scenting, and as a dye. Its leaves and flowers have been used as tea, and its flowers can be used to make a purple or reddish-brown dye. Before the introduction of hops in beer-making, oregano was often used as an aromatic and preservative in brewing. The leaves can also be distilled with water to produce oil of oregano, used medicinally and in perfume-making. It also has a place in spell and charm-making, and was thought in older times to keep milk from turning when laid by the jug.
The most common oregano has the Latin name origanum vulgare, and was historically most used medicinally and now, ornamentally. However, it does not have the distinctive oregano flavor or smell. There are other varieties, including winter marjoram, also known as origanum heracleoticum, from Greece, and pot marjoram, or origanum orites, from Sicily. These two are the types most used in cooking, because of their spicy flavor. Sweet or knotted marjoram has the Latin name of origanum marjorana, and is sweeter in fragrance.
The plant originates in the Mediterranean, and is a staple in the cuisines of Greece and Italy, but also is popular in Europe and the United States, and will grow in most climates. It was widely distributed across Asia, Europe and North Africa historically, and in modern times also can be found in North America and Australia. It does very well in high-calcium soils, such as chalk, or limestone. Common oregano can be invasive in many climates.
This perennial is slow-growing from seed, but easy to propagate. It can be spread by cutting or seeding. Take cuttings in late spring, and root them in well-watered soil. Seeds should be collected in the fall and sown in early spring with a shallow covering. Plant cuttings or seeds a foot apart, with plenty of room to grow. Oregano becomes a thick, woody clump with time. It prefers drier soil, and will grow in poor soils, though not as well as in rich soil.