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...
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 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? :--)