Oregano, a plant from the mint family, is a signature flavor of many Italian, Mexican, and Spanish dishes. Oregano is a hardy perennial plant that is easy to grow in the home garden. Oregano leaves are oval, dark green and in opposite pairs. Some varieties have fuzzy leaves, others not. Oregano starts as a ground-hugging rosette of leaves, but it can easily grow to about two feet tall. A handful of plants will provide you with enough oregano to use fresh in season and to dry for use throughout the rest of the year.
|Botanical Name||Origanum spp. and cultivars|
|Plant Type||Perennial herb|
|Mature Size||2 feet tall, 18-inch spread|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to part shade|
|Soil Type||Dry to medium moisture, well-drained soil|
|Soil pH||6.5 to 7.0|
|Flower Color||Pink, purple, and white|
|Hardiness Zones||4 to 10 (USDA); depends on variety|
|Native Area||Western and Southwestern Eurasia and the Mediterranean|
How to Grow Oregano
Oregano is one of those Mediterranean herbs that grow well in full sun, planted in lean-to-average soil that is well-drained.Climate, soil, and moisture can all cause variation in the oregano’s flavor, and rich soil tend's to dilute the pungency of the flavor. The genus is native to the Mediterranean and West Asia, but Oregano vulgare has naturalized in many areas, including the eastern United States.
Most oregano varieties need full sun, however, the golden oregano variety does best in partial shade; its leaves tend to scorch in full sun.
Sandy loam is best suited for oregano. If your soil is moist with lots of organic matter, oregano will not perform as well as it does in lighter, dryer soil that is typically well-drained. Allow the soil to dry out fully between waterings.
Do not overwater oregano. Water thoroughly only after the soil is dry to the touch.
Temperature and Humidity
Oregano may need some winter protection in hardiness zones 5 and lower. Covering the plants with an evergreen bough after the ground has frozen will protect it from wind damage.
Many herbs are considered weeds and most are not particular about the soil in which they grow. Oregano is no exception—it will grow in soil that is only moderately fertile. Do not add compost or fertilizer to its growing area. Large amounts of nutrients, such as nitrogen, can change the flavor of this herb.
Oregano plants can be started from seeds, divisions, or cuttings. Since different species of oregano will cross-pollinate, you may not get what you expect from seed you saved yourself. Oregano seeds require some light to germinate, so cover only slightly with soil. Start seeds indoors and transplant when temperatures remain above 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
Oregano plants are widely available in nurseries and through specialty catalogs. Catalogs tend to offer the widest variety of oregano plants. You can also divide plants simply to make more plants. Divide plants into segments when the centers begin to die out or the stems become too woody.
As with most herbs, oregano leaves taste best before the plant flowers. The flowers should be pinched to keep the plants bushy and prevent it from bolting to seed. The flowers stalks are spiky and may be white, pink, or purple.
You can begin harvesting when plants have reached 4 to 5 inches in height. Cut sprigs for use. Cutting stems all the way back to the ground will encourage more stems from the base and a fuller plant.
The stems tend to get woody and the easiest way to strip the leaves is to hold the stem by the top, uncut end and run your finger down the stem. Most of the necessary pruning will be accomplished by regular harvesting, but to keep oregano plants healthy, follow the guidelines for pruning woody herbs.
Few pests bother oregano, but keep an eye out for spider mites and aphids. Wet soils can cause root rot.
Varieties of Oregano
Varieties of oregano plants can be perennial ground covers, tender perennials, or even small perennial subshrubs. Even common oregano, Origanum vulgare, can take many forms. Most have stems that can get very woody.
There are many named oregano varieties, and common names tend to vary by region. Some plants may not even be in the oregano family, but are used in the same way for cooking. It helps to know the botanical name, although that is not always available. Unless you are growing it only for ornamental reasons, the best option for choosing oregano is to taste and smell it.
- Oregano heracleoticum (Greek oregano): The variety usually used in Mediterranean cooking, this is the type most people associate with oregano flavor. Oregano onites is also sometimes listed as Greek oregano.
- Oregano vulgare (common oregano, wild marjoram, pot marjoram): Marjoram is a type of oregano with a less pungent, sweeter taste, often used in French and English cooking.
- Lippia graveolens (Mexican oregano): Not in the oregano family, this plantis called Mexican oregano and is used in chili powders.
- Origanum vulgare 'Aureum' (golden oregano): This oregano has lighter colored leaves and a milder oregano flavor.
- Thymus nummularius (Spanish oregano): In Spain, this is often used in place of oregano.
- Plectranthus anboinicus (Puerto Rico or Cuban oregano): Although the taste is similar to oregano, it is not in the oregano family.
Although it is grown predominately as a culinary herb, oregano makes a nice edging plant and ground cover, requiring little maintenance. The smaller varieties also do well in rock and alpine gardens.
- Bees love oregano flowers and will cover the plants as they take up nectar and pollen. Beekeepers purposefully plant oregano near apiaries because it adds a wonderful flavor to honey made by oregano-eating bees.