All About Greek Oregano

Essential Herb in Greek Cuisine

Origanum vulgare hirtum (Oregano, Greek oregano) Creative RM By:
Origanum vulgare hirtum, Greek oregano. Chris Burrows/Getty Images

Greek oregano is called "rigani," pronounced REE-gah-nee. Oregano is sold fresh and dried as cuttings of flower tops and leaves packaged in disposable containers or as dried, ground leaves packaged in sprinkle-pour bottles. But be aware that not all oreganos are the same. Greek oregano (rigani) is a subspecies with the Latin name Origanum vulgare. Look at oregano package labeling to be sure you are buying genuine Greek oregano.

Physical Characteristics

Greek oregano reaches a height of almost two feet when it's in bloom. Like all culinary oreganos, its flower is white. Its leaves are coarse, oval, and fuzzy. Leaves are about five-eighths of an inch long and are dark green when fresh and light green when dried.

Cooking With Greek Oregano

In Greek cooking, oregano is used in tomato sauces, with meats, fish, cheese, egg dishes, salads, and cheeses and with vegetables like tomatoes, zucchini, and green beans. Oregano is an essential ingredient of countless Mediterranean recipes.

Substitutes

If you don't have any Greek oregano but want to get close to the taste, use three parts of marjoram for two parts of oregano, or thyme, basil, or summer savory.

Origin, History, and Mythology

Several varieties of oregano are grown in many different parts of the world from seeds planted in light, dry, and well-drained soils. Historically, as the name implies, Greek oregano originated on the mountain slopes of Greece. It continues to be an important erosion-control plant because its roots reduce soil erosion on mountain slopes. Greek hillsides covered with summer's growth of wild oregano in bloom are a fantastic excursion for eyes, feet, and nose.

The name "oregano" means "joy of the mountain" and has its origins in the ancient Greek " oros" (mountain) and "ganos" (joy).

According to Greek mythology, the sweet, spicy scent of oregano was created by the goddess Aphrodite as a symbol of happiness. In ancient Greece, couples were crowned with garlands of oregano at their wedding. Oregano plants were placed on tombs to give peace to departed spirits. It was also used as a laxative because of its cathartic effect.

Non-Culinary Uses

Oregano's power to heal has been known for centuries. It has powerful bacteria- and fungi-killing properties, and it is used as a painkiller and anti-inflammatory. Oregano tea is a treatment for indigestion, coughs, and to stimulate menstruation. The oil of oregano is used for toothaches and in some cosmetics. The leaves and flowering stems are natural antiseptics because of high thymol content.

Subspecies of Oregano

When you're shopping for oregano, it helps to know which one's which. These Latin names help to sort it out.

  • Origanum vulgare: Wild marjoram, Greek oregano
  • Origanum onites: Italian oregano
  • Origanum heracleoticum/heraclites, the previous name for Greek oregano
  • Lippia graveolens: Mexican oregano, also known as Mexican marjoram or Mexican wild sage; this is not a true oregano
  • Origanum vivens: Spanish oregano
  • Origanum majorana: Sweet marjoram