There is no such thing as oregano pure and simple. One catalog lists ‘Greek,' ‘Wild Greek,' ‘Italian,' ‘Golden,' ‘Showy,' ‘Beautiful,' ‘Woolly' and ‘White' oregano. Another assures the reader that it sells the "true oregano collected wild in the mountains of Greece."
Few herbs suffer such a confusion of Latin and common names. Let me spare you the tangled taxonomic details and say first that oregano grown from seed labeled Origanum vulgare, wild oregano, is likely to be a sprawling, scentless disappointment. Far better to pick up plants in person. This is a herb, like lemon thyme, that ought to be pinched, sniffed and nibbled so that you can be sure of its potency.
Currently in our garden, we have five plants labeled oregano, only one of which we use. ‘Showy' oregano, which looks more like thyme than oregano, has pretty magenta tubes for flowers and no scent. ‘Golden' oregano looked sickly (as many yellow-leaved plants do) and had sat still for so long that we were ready to show it the garden gate or dump it unceremoniously onto the compost heap. But on the advice of another gardener, who reported that ‘Golden' oregano "romps freely and is very decorative," we let it be.
Now it forms a bright patch of foliage in the kitchen garden, a fine contrast to the dark green winter savory and silvery sage. Not aromatic enough for cooking, dark-leaved ‘Herrenhausen' oregano is very decorative in the front row of perennial beds, where its late-summer violet flowers set off the small light yellow daisies of Aster luteus.
‘Italian' oregano resembles the ‘Greek,' but its scent and flavor are mild to the vanishing point. Laurels must go to the herb labeled, mysteriously, first name only-Origanum spp, ‘Greek' oregano-whose leaves are properly pungent to the nose and peppery on the tongue. ‘Greek' oregano was said to be half-hardy-another herb to pamper in a flowerpot indoors over winter-but ours has lived outdoors, in a gravelly pocket of a stone-paved patio, for more than a decade.
The secret may be to situate this sun-and stone-loving herb in a hot, dry, perfectly drained corner, conditions approx-imating its Mediterranean home. Mulch around the plant with gravel or small pebbles, and in the absence of snow, protect it during winter.
Preserving the harvest
Oregano dries in a twinkle when the branches are hung in a warm, airy, shaded place. Strip the dried leaves from the stems, and store them in a jar. This is one herb I use more of dried than fresh, the robust flavor being appropriate to heartier fall and winter dishes. Dried oregano is sprinkled over pizza and added to sautéing onions, celery and garlic as the base for spaghetti sauce or minestrone soup (it's now that you appreciate your own bottled tomatoes). Oregano is a natural for meat loaf, chili and bean or lentil soup.
Used with permission from Herbs: The Complete Gardener's Guide by Patrick Lima. Photograph(s) by Turid Forsyth, Firefly Books 2012, $24.95 paperback.