(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 4, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
I have grown several ornamental oreganos in my garden. Here, in the hot, humid South many of them are considered short-lived perennials. They require excellent drainage, lean soil and the addition of a little lime to help them through a wet winter or long dry summers. However, with a little planning before planting, these plants will grow quickly and prosper early in the season. They are great for filling in “holes” in borders and for edging and because they are so shallow rooted, I find their fast growing lushness a welcome addition and never a hindrance in my own garden.
My favorite ornamental oregano has to be the simply named “golden” Oregano vulgare ‘Aureum’, pictured here with some nigella and rain lilies. I love the bright yellow foliage that blankets a small, forgotten corner of my garden – it grows only to about 6” tall (taller in some climates. Sheer in late June), and does not edge out the competition but works gently with it. This oregano will flower, but the flowers are a delicate faded pink and not very showy. This is an edible oregano however I do not find the flavor as fine as the true Greek Oregano and leave this one as an ornamental.
“Gold Crisp” (or Golden Crisp) oregano Origanum majorana 'Aurea' is technically a marjoram, but hey – it’s all in the same family! This is another gold leaf creeping plant, but the difference here is lower growth and rounded, crinkly leaves. This makes a fantastic edging plant – think about combining it with an icy turquoise blue leafed Dianthus, and you’ve got all the garden color you need without a single flower! I find this oregano a bit fussier than most in my garden. It needs a heaping addition of organic matter and more frequent water but detests to much moisture on the leaves.
'Barbara Tingey' Origanum rotundifolium is one of the most dramatic garden herbs you can find. Rotundifolium oreganos have little drooping calyx that look like hops and are most often mistaken for the actual oregano flower. The flowers are tiny and hot pink, and protrude from the calyx – persisting only for a day or two and then leaving the hops like calyx cone to slowly turn from lime green to pink and then lilac. These unusual plants need to be shown off and look best in containers or cascading over walls which are two situations which also support it’s growing need for excellent drainage and a good summer baking. 'Barbara Tingey' is more persistent in my garden than her dear cousin, 'Kent Beauty'.
'Kent Beauty' is another Origanum rotundifolium, and is much more available in garden centers than any other. In comparison to 'Barbara Tingey' he is slightly more upright, and needs better garden soils and very careful attention to a dry winter. However, just as his cousin, he has the showy, hop-like calyxes, which surround the tiny flowers that are visited by bees and butterflies. Rotundifolium oreganos are some of those “What the heck is that” plants!
Origanum laevigatum 'Herrenhausen' is one of the “Showy” oreganos, with dark green grounded foliage, dark stems and fluffy puffs of rosy purple, scented flowers in mid-summer for an extended period of time. It’s more tender, hardy only to zone 7 and needs good soil and good drainage to thrive. It’s a bee magnet, and an excellent plant to showcase near the vegetable garden where pollinators are always welcome.
Similar, but in my garden slightly more compact is 'Hopley’s' Origanum laevigatum. It flowers slightly later for me than Herrenhausen and has a paler flower, which is more abundant and billowing. A beautiful addition to the herb or ornamental gardens and perfect for cutting. Although some do, I do not cook with the laevigatum oreganoes, preferring to use the more choice culinary varieties of Oregano hirtum instead.
Your favorite nursery will probably carry at least one type of ornamental oregano in their herb department. Why not try it? The bees and butterflies will thank-you!