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Knot Garden - Herbs - The Origanum family  Origanum Vulgare and Origanum Onites Marjoram and Oregano

The Knot Garden

Insights into Herbs and their uses

The Origanum family – Origanum Vulgare and Origanum Onites Marjoram and Oregano

For several weeks now the marjoram and oregano bushes bounding the vegetable patch have bowed bee-heavy, flopping out onto the old path to brush unsuspecting ankles and release woody, aromatic warmth onto the hot breeze.

Marjoram Close Up

The various members of the Origanum species (and there are a large number of them, the family being well known for their promiscuous readiness to inter-breed) are almost exclusively associated with the kitchen today. This wasn’t, though, the case in the past...

Catch the scent of the crushed leaves and you are transported to Greek hillsides smothered with ‘oros’ (mountain) ‘ganos’ (joy). Hold it in your nostrils and you can see Aphrodite creating it as a symbol of happiness. Sit cross legged beside it and imagine Venus pouring gentle sleep over Ascanius’ limbs before carrying him off at her breast to the groves of Idalin, there to lay him down on a bed of sweet marjoram...

The Knot Garden - Herbs - The Origanum family – Origanum Vulgare and Origanum Onites Marjoram and Oregano

In ancient Egypt marjoram was esteemed for its healing, disinfectant and preserving prowess and the Greeks valued it as an antidote for poisons, Aristotle recording that tortoises, having eaten snakes, would then immediately eat marjoram... (Yes, but how does a tortoise actually CATCH a snake, please?)

And it has a long, benevolent association with hatching, matching and despatching; a favoured herb of the birthing room, being fashioned into garlands to enhance the fertility of the bride and groom in Greek and Roman weddings and also being used to anoint the dead. Indeed the Greeks believed that to have marjoram grow on your grave was a sure sign that your spirit was at peace.

Around the home marjoram leaves have been employed as an aromatic polish for oak furniture, its flower tops used to produce a reddish-brown dye for wool and its stems and leaves included as ingredients of strewing herbs, even if today many settle for a few stalks inserted under a door-mat instead of the complete ‘floral floor’ effect. It was also respected in the dairy, where it was placed in bunches amongst pails of milk in sultry weather, in the belief that it would keep it from souring.

Out in the garden, plants of marjoram and oregano draw bees and butterflies like magnets – particularly Browns and Gatekeepers – as well as holding a welcome source of winter food for birds in their seedheads.

I think of them as amongst the least demanding of plants... in full sun or partial shade they will grow erect to a certain critical point and then flop exuberantly from the centre, usually as the result of heavy rain. As they do so, they smother all around, so I usually surround them with spring bulbs, for their yellowing summer foliage is neatly hidden once the Origanum ladies have spread their fragrant petticoats.

The Knot Garden - Herbs - The Origanum family – Origanum Vulgare and Origanum Onites Marjoram and Oregano

The most exuberant of them all growth-wise is Origanum vulgare with its dark green downy leaves and white, purple or mauve-pink two-lipped flowers arranged in pretty panicles. The pot marjoram (Origanum onites) has paler leaves and there is a particularly pretty variety of golden marjoram which holds its own when grown in combination with the other two. Another I am particularly fond of has green and white variegated leaves, white clusters of flowers and a less forceful habit – all welcome in my theoretically peaceful moonlight garden (currently over-run by self-seeded nasturtiums!!!)

Origanum vulgare is relatively common in the wild in Wales and the south of England, but less well established the further north you go. Having said that, I grew it without protection in a cold Yorkshire garden for many years, in spite of book-bound warnings that prolonged frost would kill it...

Flavour–wise it just sings with tomatoes or eggs, but if adding it to cooked dishes, do so near the end, as much of its flavour is quickly lost if stewed. I also love it chopped almost powder-fine with chives and salad burnet and sprinkled over pasta or summer salads.

Marjoram in the Garden

Its healing uses include a mouth wash for ulcers and toothache, a remedy for stomach, gall bladder problems and diarrhoea, the treatment of high blood pressure, relief of coughing and asthma and the easing of menstrual pain. Although it is a relatively gentle herb, it should not be used in any quantity during pregnancy because it also acts to regulate monthly cycles.

The leaves and flowers can be added to bathwater to relieve aching limbs – but I would recommend wrapping them in muslin before doing so, to relieve the need to make your limbs ache all over again as you try to get the little green bits off the side of the bath...

Finally it is recommended for stress headaches and nervous exhaustion, either taken as an infusion or the diluted oil rubbed at the temples. And Gerard also advocates marjoram tea for people who are ‘given to overmuch sighing’... but then who could truly know these lovely plants and NOT sigh? :--)

The Knot Garden - Herbs - The Origanum family – Origanum Vulgare and Origanum Onites Marjoram and Oregano

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