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What variety of oregano should I grow?

This flavorful herb comes in both edible and ornamental varieties.

Debbie W. of Sebastopol asks: What is the difference between culinary and ornamental oregano?

The most popular culinary oregano you will see at nurseries falls into two categories: the milder and sweeter-flavored sweet marjoram (origanum majorana) and the stronger-flavored origanum vulgare. Depending on the variety of oregano, its flavor differs dramatically when dried.

As a plant, oregano is more than just a way to spice up a dish. Not only are there many culinary oregano types to choose from, there are many ornamental varieties to grow. Varieties come from Greece, Italy and the Middle East. The ancient Greeks discovered oregano’s purpose and value and add it to many of their dishes. The name translates to “joy of the mountain.”

If you’re looking for a variety of oregano for cooking, choose one that will best suit your recipes and taste. Rub a few leaves between your fingers, and you’ll be able to decide which variety will work in your recipes. Here are a few gardener’s favorites:

Italian oregano (origanum x majoricum) is a nicely fragrant herb. It’s a hybrid of the common oregano and the mild-flavored sweet marjoram. It’s what you’ll most likely find on pizza. It has delicate, light green leaves and white flowers and grows into a low, compact mound.

Greek oregano has a nice peppery flavor. It has a sprawling, open growing habit and gray-green leaves and develops small purple or white flowers.

Marjoram (origanum majorana) is most commonly used in southern European and Middle Eastern recipes. Its flavor is very similar to Greek oregano, but it’s milder.

Here are a few favorite varieties of ornamental oregano that gardeners love to grow:

O. ‘Aureum’ is an edible variety with robustly creeping gold-colored foliage and smallish pink, lavender or purple flowers in early to late summer.

O. ‘Hopley’s Purple’ is a fragrant ornamental plant that does well in heat and dry conditions. It also makes a superb cut flower and lures butterflies.

O. ‘Kent Beauty’ resembles hops when its pendulous rosy bracts are in flower. It has a long blooming season and lovely silvery foliage.

Variegated O. vulgare, with its deep green leaves edged in ivory, has a low mounding habit and a milder flavor than most oregano varieties. This attractive plant reaches heights of 1 to 2 feet and spreads up to 2 feet.

You should harvest the oregano’s leaves as you need them. The leaves have the most flavor before the flowers begin to bloom, and that is also the best time to harvest them for drying.

Fresh oregano, unfortunately, doesn’t stand up very well to prolonged cooking, so it’s best to add the tender leaves as the final ingredient or use the dried leaves for anything that needs a long simmering time.

Oregano also makes a good companion plant in the vegetable garden. It can be helpful in repelling insects that commonly affect broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.The flowers are especially attractive to pollinators.

Oregano does well in pots or along low walls, where it can cascade over the edge. It can even add seasonal interest as a ground cover or edging along paths.

Oregano can tolerate dry soil but requires a well-draining soil to prevent rot and disease. It loves the full sun and does not need as much water as most herbs.

Dana Lozano and Gwen Kilchherr are garden consultants. Send your gardening questions to The Garden Doctors, at pdgardendoctor@gmail.com.The Garden Doctors can answer questions only through their column, which appears twice a month in the newspaper and online at pressdemocrat.com.

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