Although many of us grow basil, parsley and chives, oregano seems to be less popular in Canadian gardens. Part of the reason may be that we have more limited experience cooking with fresh oregano since this herb didn’t become popular in North America until after world war II when newly arrived European immigrants and returning soldiers – hooked on oregano’s peppery edge and heady flavor that develops with cooking – began to ask for it at supermarkets. Despite being quite new to Canadians, the culinary use of oregano has a very long European heritage. In fact, oregano was popular for cooking and as a perfume ingredient in ancient Greece where legend holds that the plant was a gift from the goddess Aphrodite. The word ‘oregano’ is, in fact, Greek and means ‘joy of the mountain’. Besides being popular in Grecian favorites like Mousakka, oregano is an important Italian flavor and one of the main ingredients in chili powder, too.
A few years ago I wrote about cooking with oregano and I interviewed herb expert Pat Crocker. She gave me her excellent oregano growing tips and I pass them along to you again today.
• Oregano is a compact, bushy plant with small leaves and small white or pink flowers that form in clusters. It is part of the mint family and shares the family characteristic of tending to spread so plant oregano in containers or spaces where you don’t mind it wandering.
• Culinary herb gardeners should plant Italian oregano (O. x majoricum); it has the sweetness of sweet marjoram and a spicy zip, without the bitter undertones found in some stronger oreganos.
• Oregano thrives on hot, sunny, well-drained slopes. Sun helps to develop the essential oils, which give the aerial parts their fragrant odor and taste so an open location is important.
• Oregano can be grown from seed but the plants are very slow to germinate. Root division or cuttings are the easiest method of propagation since most oreganos develop roots easily. If starting from seed, definitely start indoors mid- to late March.
• Cut back up to two thirds of the plant each time you harvest and harvest regularly in the summer months to maintain good tasting stock.
• To dry your crop for use in the colder months, cut whole sprigs; rinse under cold water, pat dry and hang upside down in a dark, warm, dry place. Don’t try to pack too many sprigs together and remember that they will shrink as they dry, so tie the string tight. Label each bundle.