You may be able to identify oregano by its smell, but do you really know what it is? We are all pretty familiar with the dried version, as a ubiquitous ingredient in marinara and pizza, but the herb in its fresh form is not used as much in everyday cooking. So what is oregano exactly? And is it the same as marjoram?
The Oregano Plant
Common oregano is botanically known as Origanum vulgare, Greek for "joy of the mountains." It can be found growing wild on mountainsides of Greece and other Mediterranean countries where it is a herb of choice.
The oregano plant is a perennial which grows up to two feet tall and bears tiny leaves which lend a pungent aroma and strong flavor to a variety of savory foods. When in bloom, the plant sports pink or purple flowers, which are also edible. The leaves are used fresh from the plant or dried. Commercially, oregano's biggest market is in perfumes.
Pizza and Popularity
Oregano, commonly called "the pizza herb," is one of the most widely-used herbs worldwide, so it is hard to imagine anyone not having tried it. However, oregano was virtually unused in America until returning World War II soldiers heightened the popularity of pizza. In fact, sales of oregano increased by 5,200 percent between 1948 and 1956 due to pizza mania.
Oregano vs. Marjoram
Oregano to one person may be something completely different to another, as it is easily confused with its close relative, marjoram. In the Mediterranean, oregano is also known as wild marjoram, but that doesn't mean it is marjoram. Marjoram's botanical name is Origanum majorana, so it is the same genus as oregano but it is a different species. Marjoram's gentler flavor is sweeter than oregano, which is slightly woodsy with a warm and aromatic taste. And marjoram's aroma is not quite as pungent as oregano's.
Adding more confusion to the mix is—due to the close relationship between marjoram and oregano—that they look very much alike. Marjoram has leaves which are slightly hairy and more gray-green in color, while oregano has olive-green colored leaves, but overall they have similar appearances.
There are a number of different varieties of oregano. The strongest flavored is considered to be Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens), which is actually from a different botanical family. Mexican oregano is also known as Mexican marjoram or Mexican wild sage, and if your recipe calls for this specifically, try not to substitute. Spanish (Origanum vivens) and Greek (Origanum heraclites) oregano have decreased depth of flavor.
Oregano—especially fresh oregano—can be used in more than just pizza and pasta sauce. The beautiful green herb adds a delicious, and perhaps unexpected, earthy flavor to several dishes including chicken, seafood, hamburgers, even beans. Also, try it in your next homemade pesto for a bit of a more robust topping for pasta or fish. Consider freezing fresh oregano to enjoy year round.