Outrageous Oregano - U of I Extension

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Outrageous Oregano

This article was originally published on April 14, 2010 and expired on July 31, 2010. It is provided here for archival purposes and may contain dated information.

Most of us cannot imagine what a pizza would taste like without oregano, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"The warm, spicy flavor of oregano is one of the most familiar herbs used in food dishes," said Jennifer Fishburn. "And it is something we can grown in our gardens here in Illinois."

Oregano loves heat and thrives in a full sun garden location. Oregano plants prefer a light to medium rich, well drained soil. Good soil drainage is a must and will prevent root rots. Allow plenty of room between plants for branching roots to spread out, she recommended.

"Culinary use of oregano dates back to the Renaissance," she said "Good culinary oregano has a hot, peppery flavor with a hint of clove and balsam.

"Oregano is used in a wide variety of tomato dishes, pizzas, pastas, salads, soups, stews, vegetable dishes, breads, Italian and Mexican dishes, and herb blends. It is usually added near the end of cooking, to preserve the aromatic oils."

True oreganos, genus Origanum, are aromatic, herbaceous perennials which have erect, hairy stems. Plants vary from six inches to two feet. There are approximately 44 species in the Origanum genus.

"The best oregano to use for food dishes is Greek oregano," she said. "Greek oregano, Origanum vulgare var. hirtum, gives the truest biting, pungent flavor. While the flavor can vary from plant to plant, this is usually a dependable variety for culinary uses.

"Flowers are white and attract butterflies. Plants will grow up to 18 inches tall. The winter survival for Greek oregano is marginal in Zone 5."

Wild oregano, Origanum vulgare, generally does not have the best flavor for culinary uses. This plant is fairly invasive and makes a great groundcover. Flowers range from pale pink to dark purple. The plants are beautiful in the landscape or in a container planting. Fresh cut stems add character to a flower arrangement. Wild oregano should be planted where the spread can be controlled.

"It is best to purchase oregano as a plant," Fishburn said. "When selecting a plant, taste a tiny bit of a leaf. The flavor should bite back with a sharp and intense sensation.

"True-to-type oregano plants are mostly grown from cuttings. Most oreganos do not come true from seed. Seedling plants, even from seeds of tasty plants, vary widely in their culinary intensity."

Harvest oregano when the plants are about six inches tall. This early harvest will make the plant branch and become more compact and sturdy. When harvesting oregano, leave two or three pair of leaves on the stem, cut the stem back to just above a leaf axil.

"Leaves of oregano may be used fresh, frozen or dried," she said. "Compared to other herbs, oregano maintains a high quality of flavor when dried. To dry, lay stems on a screen, or tie stems in small bunches and hang upside down in a warm, dry location."

Whole sprigs of oregano can be laid flat on a baking sheet and frozen for one to two hours. After freezing, store sprigs in a tightly sealed freezer bag, with the air removed. As needed, remove from the freezer, chop and use immediately.

"Be sure to always label and date any containers," Fishburn noted. "No need to have any mystery containers in your cupboard or freezer."

For more information about oregano- the history, popular varieties, culture, harvesting, culinary uses and recipes- visit The International Herb Association website at http://www.iherb.org/. Information for this article was adapted from Outrageous Oregano and Mild Mannered Marjoram booklet written by Charles E. Voigt.

Source: Jennifer Fishburn, Extension Educator, Horticulture, fishburn@illinois.edu

Pull date: July 31, 2010