Morphology

Oregano (Lamiaceae family) has square stems with opposite aromatic leaves. The flowers are arranged in clusters at the base of the uppermost leaves or in terminal spikes. The individual flowers have two lips, the upper ones two-lobed and the lower three-lobed. Each flower produces, when mature, four small seed like structures. The foliage is dotted with small glands containing the volatile or essential oil that gives to the plant its aroma and flavour (Simon et al, 1984).

Oregano is a perennial species that grows spontaneously in areas across the Mediterranean region, particularly in high locations. In these areas oregano is harvested mainly from wild populations, once or twice a year, at flowering stage.

Origanum majorana L.

Marjoram, Origanum majorana L., is a tender perennial herb native to North Africa and south-west Asia and naturalised in southern Europe. Formerly classified as Majorana hortensis Moench. and also sweet or knotted marjoram, the plant reaches a height of 20—40 cm, has thin square, glabrous to tomentose, reddish stems, and has small, grey-green, ovate leaves, pink or purple flowers, and erect, stems. Marjoram is cultivated in France, Greece, Hungary, the United States, Egypt, and several other Mediterranean countries (Sarlis, 1994).

The reported life zone of marjoram is 6—28 °C with an annual precipitation of 0.5—2.7 m and a soil pH of 4.9—8.7. The plant is adapted to well-drained, fertile loam soils. The cold-sensitive plant cannot survive northern climates. For cultivation, marjoram is both seeded directly and transplanted into fields. Harvesting is generally accomplished at full bloom and can be done two or three times per year, depending upon the growing region. Plant material is often dried in drying sheets to avoid direct sunlight and thus preserve the green colour and the aroma (Sarlis, 1994).

There are a wide range of ecotypes and chemotypes of marjoram, and the plant is often confused with other Origanum species. Pot marjoram, Origanum onites L., is a short perennial with papillose, hirsute stems, ovate leaves, and white or purple flowers. Formerly classified as M. onites (L.) Benth., this plant is native to south-east Europe, Turkey, and Syria. Wild marjoram refers to several plants, generally of Origanum species that are collected and used as oregano. Thymus mastichina L., a native of Spain and North Africa, is the source of an essential oil known as Spanish wild marjoram oil.

Marjoram and pot marjoram are both generally recognised as safe for human consumption as natural flavourings/seasonings, and marjoram is generally recognised as safe as an extract/essential oil.

Origanum vulgare

Under the common name oregano, four different species are reported: Origanum vulgare L., and the subspecies O. vulgare subsp. vulgare, O. vulgare subsp. viride, and O. onites (Sarlis, 1994). Oregano originates from the Mediterranean and is closely related to marjoram. Its pungency is in direct proportion to the amount of sun it receives. It grows to a height of about 20 cm, with woody stems and dark green leaves around 2 cm long. Small, white flowers are borne on long spikes. The plant protects the inclined soils, and it is quite tolerant to cold and dryness. During the winter the aerial parts are destroyed, but the roots maintain their vitality for the revegetation in spring. Oregano grows in medium soils, and in areas with high elevation and cool summer (Sarlis, 1994).

Plant seeds in warm soil in late summer (August). Plants can be moved outdoors after three to four months (October—November). Oregano is best treated as an annual in cold climates where it will not over winter well. When grown as a perennial, roots should be divided every 3 years for best growth and flavour. Older plants will do well as a potted plant as long as they receive sufficient sunlight. As with most herbs, desiccated plant parts should be removed as frequently as necessary (Sarlis, 1994).

Harvesting the leaves and stem tips should start when plants are at the flowering stage, beginning at 10 cm from the ground. The flavour will improve after the flower buds form, just before flowering. To harvest, cut the stem tops down to the first two sets of leaves. New stems and shoots will grow, producing second and sometimes third crops. Leaves should be dried in a warm, dry, shaded place, and stored in an airtight container (Sarlis, 1994).

Wild oregano (wild marjoram, common oregano, Origanum vulgare)

Wild oregano is a herbaceous perennial, native to Asia, Europe and North Africa. It is a beautiful plant, flowering in heady corymbs, with reddish bracts and purple corollas. The plant is rangy and sprawling if not cut back. The foliage is finely textured and grey-green; the variety 'Aureum' (Golden Oregano) has yellow leaves. Flowers come in late summer, grow in spikes, and are purplish white. Height is 30—60 cm with comparable width.

Along with Greek Oregano, it is the source of highly antiseptic essential oils including carvacrol and thymol. There has been much commercial focus on carvacrol as a healing agent, but it is the whole herb that does the work, including all the essential oils as well as the tonifying tannins found in the plant. And, carvacrol itself occurs at therapeutic levels in many medicinal herbs besides Oregano.

Growing wild oregano is rather easy. Optimum pH is 6.8. Wild oregano grows well in shade, the cultivated sub-species O. v. hirtum does not. Pungency declines in rich soils, and after flowering. Oregano has a spreading root system. Propagation is usually by seed or cuttings.

Cuttings of new shoots (about 30 cm long) are removed in late spring once the leaves are firm enough to prevent wilting when placed in sand. Well-rooted cuttings are placed in the ground about 30 cm apart or planted outside in pots. If seeds are used, they should be sown in a seedbox in spring and planted outside when seedlings are 7.5 cm tall. Old wood that becomes leggy should be cut out at the end of winter and plants should be replaced every four years or so to prevent legginess.

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