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an aromatic herb used in both cooking and perfume

Origanum vulgare, is a perennial herb in the mint family. The shrubby plant grows up to 32 inches tall, has spade-shaped, olive-green leaves that are about 2.5 inches long, and its 1.5-inch-long purple flowers grow in erect spikes. Native to northern Europe, oregano has been introduced throughout many regions of the world. It prefers a hot, relatively dry climate, but does well in other environments.

flowering oregano plant
flowering oregano plant

Oregano is an important culinary herb, used for the flavor of its leaves, and is one of the few herbs that is stronger when dried than when fresh. Its flowers are also edible. Commercially, oregano's biggest market is in perfumes.

dried oregano leaves
dried oregano leaves


Oregano was first used by the ancient Greeks. According to their mythology, the spice was invented by Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who gave it to man to make his life happier. In fact, the word "oregano" is derived from the Greek phrase, "joy of the mountains." Newly married couples were crowned with wreaths of oregano, and it was also placed on graves to give peace to departed spirits. Ancient Greek physicians prescribed oregano for a variety of ailments, and Hippocrates used it as an antiseptic.

The Romans adopted much of Greek culture, including the use of oregano. The ease of its cultivation, coupled with the Romans' proclivity for expansion, spread oregano throughout Europe and Northern Africa.

People continued to use oregano through the Middle Ages. One of the few spices available to almost everyone, oregano was not only used as a flavoring for otherwise bland food, but for its many perceived medicinal benefits as well. Oregano leaves were chewed as a cure for rheumatism, toothache, indigestion, and as a cough suppressant. It was also used as a medicinal herb in China, to where it made its way via the "Spice Road." Chinese doctors prescribed it to relieve fever, vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, and itchy skin.

Despite its widespread use in Europe and the Far East, oregano was virtually unknown in the United States until World War II. Soldiers discovered its flavors and aromas during the Italian Campaign and brought the spice and the desire for it back to the States.

Health Benefits

The volatile oils in oregano include thymol and carvacrol, both of which have been shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria, including Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus. Oregano also contains numerous phytonutrients that have been shown to function as potent antioxidants that can prevent oxygen-based damage to cell structures throughout the body.

Oregano is a good source of fiber, an excellent source of vitamin K, and a very good source of manganese, iron, dietary fiber, and calcium. In addition, oregano is a good source of vitamin E and tryptophan.

World War II

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The Robinson Library >> Agriculture >> Plant Culture >> Vegetables

This page was last updated on 05/12/2017.