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And the herb of the year is ...

March 20, 2005|by Dorry Norris

In 1995 the International Herb Association, in an effort to promote Herb Week and member businesses, focused on a single herb for a given year. Criteria for the chosen herb demanded that it both be useful and easy to grow in all sections of the country. The lead-off herb was fennel; since then, monarda, thyme, mint, lavender, rosemary, sage, echinacea, basil and garlic have worn the annual crown.

This year the spotlight is on the Origanum (or-RIG-uh-num) clan. This botanical name is derived from the Greek oros, a mountain, and ganos, joy. Origanum is one of the 200 branches of the mint family. There are 44 species of Origanum - including oregano and marjorum - as well as 18 naturally occurring hybrids. Many other plants also contain generous amounts of the carvacol that is responsible for oregano's flavor and scent. Dr. Arthur O. Tucker of Delaware State University states: "It's best to think of oregano as a flavor rather than a species."

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Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare hirtum) has the spicy taste that is so familiar to us in pizza and spaghetti sauce. It is an aromatic, low, gray-green perennial with white flowers, hairy stems and fuzzy leaves. Blooming from June to August, it is hardy to zone 5. If the oregano you have been growing produces purple flowers, it is wild oregano (Oregano vulgare) that is better suited to ornamental rather than culinary purposes - the flowers dry beautifully and bees and butterflies are enchanted by it.

Gardening lore suggests oregano improves the flavor of nearby plants - especially cucumbers. I find that claim somewhat suspect, since it is so difficult to measure. I do know that oregano works wonders when grown alongside tomatoes, onions, eggplant and squash.

In many cultures, oregano enjoyed a reputation as both a folk medicine and an herb to prevent witchcraft. Its prominence as America's herb of choice for pizza occurred after World War II.

For a milder, less intense taste, marjoram (Origaninum majorama syn. Majorana hortensis) is a good choice. Marjoram is one of the favorite herbs in French cooking. For my palate, while it does have a more delicate flavor than the more robust oregano, there is some component of marjoram that I find off-putting. Since taste is very personal, you should try it and make up your own mind. If the flavor pleases, try it with potatoes, pumpkin, apples, green beans, corn, chicken and eggs.

Marjoram is a tender, soft-stemmed perennial (hardy in zones 8-10) that grows about 12 inches tall and produces tiny lavender-pink flowers. The whole plant has a sweet sage-like aroma. Since its root system responds well to life in a confined space, this is a tidy plant for a pot or window box

Marjoram has a long history of folk uses, especially in love potions and spells. If an unmarried girl tucked a sprig beneath her pillow, legend said she would dream about her prospective mate. When the right man did come along, ancient Romans and Greeks crowned the bridal couple with wreaths of marjoram. One herbal mentions that marjoram and violets mixed together and worn during the winter months offered protection against the cold. Where was that gem of information when the thermometer plummeted last month?

On the other hand, if you are looking for an oregano that is more ornamental than culinary, look no further than dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamunus). This prostrate shrub with arching stems of wooly, gray-white leaves produces tiny pink flowers within large purple bracts. It sometimes is called hop marjoram because it produces pendant heads in the summer that resemble hops. Picked just as they open, these bracts dry beautifully and make a lovely addition to winter bouquets.

Over the years, I have discovered that the dried herbs of the oregano family impart a stronger, more interesting flavor to dishes than do the fresh. For the most flavorful dried oregano and marjoram, harvest after the flower buds form but before the plant blooms. Fresh oregano flowers are a gently spicy addition to salads

Native to Europe and the Middle East, all Origanums prefers a warm, well-drained soil in full sun. They prosper in alkaline soil, so a top dressing of eggshells might be in order. Beware of over-watering. Check out your favorite greenhouse for some of the elegant ornamental members of this wildly assorted family. They will love that sunny dry spot in your garden.

Remember, the oreganos aren't just for pizza anymore.

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