Herbs have been a part of human existence for thousands of years and even in the dawn of pre-history, there is evidence of humans using plants for medicine and religious rites. The cave paintings of Lascaux, France which are most famous for the fantastic animals, have botanical images depicted on the walls along with the creatures. Herbs are buried with the Egyptian pharaohs, Sumerian kings, Chinese emperors and the druids of the British Isles. We'll learn a bit about the lore and traditions surrounding these plants along with some tasty uses in this series of articles. I find botanical history fascinating and hope you enjoy this trip back in time.
Oregano is one of the herbs that have both spiritual and culinary uses and early peoples of the Mediterranean relied it extensively. This member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) is associated with good tidings and joy. Surprisingly enough, it was a popular herb at both weddings and funerals. The couple to be married were crowned with wreaths or garlands of oregano to ensure long years of love and happiness, while the graves were planted with the herb to help the deceased find peace and tranquility in the next life. It was also a popular ingredient in love potions and the flowers make a reddish tinted dye for wool and linen.
The essential oils in oregano contain some surprising medicinal properties as well. It is antibacterial, anti fungal and contains antihistamines. It is also a powerful antioxidant and tests conclude that a tablespoon of fresh oregano is as powerful as an apple in controlling free radicals. Tests are also underway that show that it could also contain a powerful antibiotic. Nutritionally, oregano is a significant source of Vitamin C & E, magnesium, calcium and iron. The crushed leaves will also soothe insect bites, rashes, cuts and scrapes. No wonder our ancestors held it in such high regard and made it a part of their herbal pharmacy.
There a number of oregano species, however the most intense flavor comes from the Greek. Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum. The crushed leaves have a strong scent and when tasted, it almost numbs the tongue. That's the variety I keep in my garden. Give it space to grow, because like most mints and their relatives, it spreads quickly. Mine has similar habits to its mint cousins, spreading willfully by underground runners. I keep it in check by surrounding it with a concrete sidewalk on two sides. Some gardeners even keep it in containers. Just remember that it likes sunny conditions and hates wet feet. Here in west Kentucky it is perennial and even remains green throughout most of the winter. Many people only associate oregano with its traditional use in acid-based foods, such as spaghetti sauce and pizza. However, it can make a great flavor statement when roasting chicken, with burgers and in rustic breads.
Harvest oregano just before it blooms. The flavor is most intense then. After it blooms, the leaves become bitter and tough, so young leaves are preferred for any culinary use. You can dry the leaves, or chop them and freeze them in olive oil, which is my favorite method, or you can add the leaves on stems to vinegars and oils to liven them up a bit too. When cooking with oregano, add it in the last 10 minutes of cooking for the best flavor. Extended cooking time and high temperatures degrade the essential oils and hurt the taste. To freeze oregano in olive oil, chop clean, dry leaves and unopened flower buds, but not the tough stems. Add them to the oil, mix well and freeze in a flat container, or right in a freezer bag. Break off whatever you need when it is time to cook and return the rest to the freezer. If oregano is frozen without oil, the leaves turn dark and unsightly.
I always leave a section of my oregano bed unharvested and allow it to bloom for the bees. Oregano blooms are irresistible to honeybees and they cover my plants seeking the nectar all summer. Many other species of insects and butterflies find it tasty as well and my little clump literally hums with all of the insect activity. It is a great way to attract pollinators to your garden. This is an excellent plant for new gardeners since it is hardy, tough and forgiving. Just remember that it can be aggressive as it spreads, so give it plenty of room, or keep it in a container. It makes an excellent addition to a cottage garden, or if kept pruned, an old fashioned herbal knot garden.
Herbal lore is fascinating and it is often surprising about how accurate (or absurd) the old traditions and uses were. It gives us a peek into the past and sometimes a better understanding of our ancestors.