Oregano is an herb of many talents: savory Italian spice, potent antioxidant, bacteria-fighting antiseptic and antiviral. Concentrated oregano oil treats a multitude of conditions including the common flu, insect bites, candida, toothaches, and food poisoning from the microbes E. coli, salmonella and some types of staphylococcus. However, this powerful herbal oil should be limited to low dosages for a maximum of three weeks.
Common oregano is botanically known as Origanum vulgare, Greek for “joy of the mountains.” It can be found growing wild on mountainsides of Greece and other Mediterranean countries where it is an herb of choice. Also known as wild marjoram, the oregano plant is a perennial which grows up to two feet tall and bears tiny leaves which lend a pungent aroma and strong flavor to a variety of savory foods.
When in bloom, the plant sports pink or purple flowers, which are also edible. The leaves are used fresh from the plant or dried. Oregano is one of the few herbs that is stronger when dried than when fresh. Commercially, oregano’s biggest market is in perfumes.
Oregano, commonly called “the pizza herb,” is one of the most widely-used herbs worldwide, so it is hard to imagine anyone not having tried it. However, oregano was virtually unused in America until returning World War II soldiers heightened the popularity of pizza.
In fact, sales of oregano increased by 5200 percent between 1948 and 1956 due to pizzamania. Yet oregano to one person may be something completely different to another, as it is easily confused with its close relative, marjoram.
There are a number of different varieties of oregano. The strongest is considered to be Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens), which is actually from a different botanical family. Mexican oregano is also known as Mexican marjoram or Mexican wild sage, and if your recipe calls for this specifically, try not to substitute. Spanish (Origanum vivens) and Greek (Origanum heraclites) oregano follow in depth of flavor.
Adding more confusion to the mix is the close relationship between marjoram (Origanum majorana) and oregano, which naturally means they also look very much alike. While its gentler flavor is sweeter and its aroma not quite as pungent, marjoram is often confused with oregano. Sweet marjoram has leaves which are slightly hairy and more gray-green in color.