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The Origanums – Beautiful Cornerstones of the North State Herb Garden

I’m a big believer in Beauty for its very own sake, but in a gardening life where choices must be made as to what we will give room, resources, time and attention – it’s always nice to love a plant that is both beautiful and useful beyond this beauty.

Photos above: Origanum ‘Bristol Cross’ in full sun and a raised bed. Its arching, woody branches extend 18 inches across a pathway in the edible garden and suffuse the air with spicy scent each time it is brushed. The cut branches of the dusky pink bracts and fresh green foliage make long lasting cut flowers, fresh or dried.

The Origanums – also known as oreganos and marjorams, are just such plants and together they are cornerstones of the beautiful and useful herb garden. Of the more than 7 varieties of oreganos and marjorams I have growing in my garden, many are in bloom right now, reminding me of how pretty they are – as well as how aromatic, savory, hardy and easy to grow they are. In my garden these plants get watered well 2 – 3 x per week, and fed with a balanced, slow-release organic food 1 x per year (if they’re lucky).

Photo above: Origanum libanoticum. A large, densely flowering and lushly draping hop-flowered oregano is dramatic and pleasing in the garden or in a container. It catches the eye and calls in the lively hum of bees. Photo courtesy of John Whittlesey, Canyon Creek Nursery & Design; Canyon Creek Nursery was one of the earliest collectors, importers and propagators of specialty Origanum species in the US in the 1990s.

Those plants generally known as oregano or marjoram are both from the genus Origanum, in the mint (Lamiaceae) family. With somewhere between 20 and 43 species in the genus, most oreganos and marjorams are hardy, drought-tolerant perennials characterized by aromatic foliage and showy flower heads from June – late summer. Long-blooming and reliably floriferous, the Origanums are wonderful attractors of a diversity of beneficial wildlife.

Photos above: Origanum ‘Green Goddess’ – a taller, more upright and very floriferous ornamental oregano whose bright creamy bracts are borne high on the woody stems. Forms a fairly tidy mounding specimen. The pale pink of the actual flowers peek shyly out of the chartreuse bracts.

The word Origanum is derived from the Greek words oros meaning ‘mountain’ and ganos meaning joy, which together translate as ‘joy of the mountain’, indicating something about the plants’ places of origin, and the pleasure they bring to viewers.

Photos above:Origanum laevigatum ‘Hopley’s Purple’. A tall (18″ – 24″), and gracefully branching species, with reddish stems, deep green leaves close to pinnate leaves. The foliage is far more sparse than on the common edible species Origanum vulgare, to which this bears a resemblance.

Native to the mountain areas of the Mediterranean Basin and southern Asia, many varieties of oreganos will thrive in the North State – loving out hot dry summers and relatively mild winters. However, some species are frost tender, and other species can do too well and take over. A friend said to me recently: “I planted an oregano one season and spent the next 5 trying to get rid of it!” If you have any concerns about the aggressive nature of the Origanum you would like to try, I would encourage you to grow it in a container first.

Photos above: Origanum maru, Syrian Oregano. This is one of the tallest of the oreganos and is very polite in its habit, which is tidy and not aggressive. It is bold in flavor and recommended for cooking – use fresh or dried. According to Mountain Valley Growers, this is also known as Bible Hyssop and believed to be the plant referred to as Hyssop in the Bible.

Due to their rocky mountain-side habitats of origin, most Origanums prefer sunny locations, lean soil and sharp drainage, especially to keep them healthy through our wet winters.

Photo above: Origanum dictamnus ‘Dittany of Crete’. Native to the rocky island of Crete, this is plant really wants a well-drained, rock garden kind of location. I thought I had killed my plant, but I stumbled across this small remnant of my plant, which I will move to a sunnier, drier location now. Dittany of Crete is noted and grown for its round, wooly grey foliage, pale pink bracts and a compact mounding habit.

The foliage and dried flower buds of many species and cultivars in the genus are used for cooking by a variety of cultures, and have long histories of a variety of medicinal uses as well. In general the oils derived from the genus are known to be antimicrobial and antiseptic. Origanum vulgare is often known as the culinary herb oregano, and Origanum majorana, or Sweet Marjoram, is often known as the culinary herb marjoram.

Photos above: A potted Origanum rotundifolium at the entrance to my herb garden. The flowers on this are far more diminutive and the branching more airy than the more commonly sought after cultivar O. ‘Kent Beauty’ (see below).

The Origanums display a large diversity of form across even the same species, and as they cross quite freely, seed grown specimens may not come true with the characteristics of the parent plants. Most plants can be also be grown from cuttings or division as well.

Photos above: Origanum ‘Barbara Dingey’ with the distinctively pink flush on robust bracts in a Colorado garden. Photo courtesy of John Whittlesey, Canyon Creek Nursery & Design.

The foliage of the Origanums ranges from round to pinnate, velvety to hairy to veined to smooth. The plants’ aroma and tastes range from mild, to a sweet but sharp balsam tone. Origanum flowers range in color from white, to green to pink to deep purple, and in form from small blooms in dense clusters, to airy sprays of elongated hop-like bracts out of which petite blooms peak. The hop-like bracts can be colorful and persist for a very long time as cut or dried flowers. Several varieties make great groundcovers, and some of the low matt-forming varieties, specifically Origanum vulgare humile I have seen used as hardy, low-water, low-maintenance lawn substitutes.

Photos above: Origanum rotundifolium ‘Kent Beauty’ is renowned for it showy, draping floral bracts which persist for a long time in the summer garden. I grow it in a container in partial shade as well as along a pathway as a low-growing, pooling accent under native oaks.

In traditional folklore, oregano and marjoram are thought to encourage good luck and good health. They are said to have been used in spells for happiness, tranquility, luck, health, and protection and they are also said to banish sadness. With good looks, good scents, good taste and good luck going for them, the Origanums are worthy additions to any North State garden.

Photo above: The dense, mat-forming ground cover Origanum humile makes a nice edging plant at the front of a perennial border. Here it’s shown intermingling with the gray feathery foliage of snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum). O. humile is one of the best choices for a low-water, low-maintenance lawn replacement plant.

Photo above: One of the Origanums in my garden for which I have lost the name, this one bears tiny white flowers at the terminal end of ever-longer hop-like bract clusters.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time.