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Origanum vulgare (oregano)

A very common herb, oregano is widely used to give flavour to tomato or lamb dishes.

Purple and white flowers of Origanum vulgare

Origanum vulgare (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Origanum vulgare L.

Common name: 

oregano, wild marjoram

Conservation status: 

Rated by IUCN as of Least Concern (LC).

Habitat: 

Grassland or open scrub, often in rocky areas and on calcareous soils.

Key Uses: 

An important herb in Greek and Italian cuisine, it is also used in traditional medicine, potpourri and as an ornamental.

Known hazards: 

Its oil may cause skin irritation.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Asteranae
Order: 
Lamiales
Family: 
Lamiaceae
Genus: Origanum

About this species

This small white- or purple-flowered perennial is commonly called oregano. It is a widely used herb in Greek and Italian cuisine and is often used in tomato dishes, salads and with grilled meats. Together with basil (Ocimum basilicum), it is one of the main flavouring ingredients of Italian food.

Medicinal Uses

Oregano is used in traditional medicine for treating colds, indigestion and stomach upsets. 

Genus: 
Origanum

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Oregano is native to the Mediterranean, Europe (including the British Isles) and south and central Asia, and is cultivated elsewhere.

Description

Overview: Origanum vulgare is an aromatic, woody-based perennial, which grows to 20-90 cm in height.

Leaves: Its leaves are ovate (egg-shaped, with the wider end at the base), 10-40 mm long and 5-25 mm wide, and borne opposite each other on the stem. The edges of the leaves are smooth or very shallowly toothed, and the leaf tips vary from acute (pointed) to obtuse (rounded).

Flowers: The inflorescence is many-flowered, with flowers grouped into short dense lateral or terminal spikes. The corolla (ring of united petals) is white to purplish, 4-8 mm long, and has two lips. The calyx (ring of united sepals) is five-toothed. Each flower has four stamens (male parts).

Fruits: Each fruit has four small nutlets (single-seeded units).

Threats and conservation

This species is not threatened. It is common within its native areas and also widely cultivated.

Uses

Oregano is an important herb in Greek and Italian cuisine, the dried form having more flavour than the fresh leaves. Perhaps the dish most widely associated with oregano is pizza. The flavour of oregano varies according to cultivar, environmental conditions (such as climate and soil type) and time of year.

Origanum vulgare with hoverfly

Origanum vulgare with overfly (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

The dried leaves and flower tops are sometimes used in potpourri. Potpourri mixtures are dried, decorative, usually naturally fragrant, plant materials used to provide gentle aromas in houses. At Kew, we identify dried plant ingredients of potpourri and provide conservation and toxicity reports for this specialist industry. Its oil is used in aromatherapy, in perfumes and toiletries, and in the food industry as a flavouring.

Origanum vulgare makes an attractive low-growing ground cover for herbaceous borders, rock gardens and scree beds. It also makes a useful addition to grassland managed for wildlife, as its flowers attract pollinating insects. A number of compact, variegated and golden-leaved cultivars are available.

Other species of Origanum also used as herbs include Origanum majorana (sweet marjoram), Origanum onites and Origanum syriacum (za'atar, the hyssop of the Bible).

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: Six
Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox (the seeds of this plant survive drying without significant reduction in their viability, and are therefore amenable to long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB)
Germination testing: Successful
Composition values: Oil content 35%, Protein 26%

Cultivation

Origanum vulgare grows well in the sandy soil of the Mediterranean Garden at Kew. It thrives in full sun and is drought-tolerant. Seed can be sown in seed trays in an open sandy compost for propagation. Germination can be erratic. After pricking out, the seedlings can be planted out into their final positions when the roots have extended well into a 7.5 cm pot. Alternatively, plants can be divided, or softwood cuttings grown. At Kew, where a natural appearance is favoured, watering is minimal and plants are not fed, as this would cause unnaturally lush growth.

The aromatic quality of the species means that it tends not to suffer from pests. Frost damage can occur, but usually only the smaller plants succumb to it, with the larger plants recovering well.

Kew at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011

In 2011, Kew partnered with The Times to produce a show garden to showcase the significance of plants to science and society.

The garden, designed by Chelsea gold medallist Marcus Barnett, featured species chosen to demonstrate both beauty and utility, including medicinal, commercial, and industrial uses to underline the fact that plants are invaluable to our everyday lives – without them, none of us could live on this planet; they produce our food, clothing and the air that we breathe.

Origanum vulgare is the wild relative of the cultivar Origanum vulgare 'Thumble's Variety', which wass featured in Kew’s garden at Chelsea. A cultivar is a cultivated variant of a species, which is often called a ‘variety’ in the horticultural trade. Cultivars usually have characteristics that make them more desirable to growers, for example a carrot that is sweeter than its wild relative or a rose with less thorns than its wild counterpart.

References and credits

Brown, D. (2008). The Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses. Dorling Kindersley, London.

Huxley, A., Griffiths, M. & Levy, M. (eds) (1992). The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening. Vol. 3 (L to Q): 401-402. Macmillan Press, London.

Ietswaart, J.H. (1980). A taxonomic revision of the genus Origanum (Labiatae). Leiden University Press, Leiden.

Kew Science Editor: Alan Paton
Kew contributors: Steve Davis (Sustainable Uses Group)
Copy editing: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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