What is Greek Oregano?

Greek oregano grows wild in the US

Greek oregano, Origanum vulgare hirtum, is a perennial herb native to Greece and Turkey. Historically, the plant was widely cultivated throughout the Mediterranean basin. Brought by European immigrants, it now grows wild in the eastern United States. Valued in cooking for its distinctive flavor, Greek oregano also has many medicinal uses.

Closely related to the marjoram family, there are several subspecies of the Origanum vulgare family. Most of them are quite tasteless and have absolutely no culinary value. The subspecies hirtum is understood when Greek oregano is specified, although there are lesser-known subspecies with a similar flavor, including gracile from Khirgizstan and onitos from Crete and Turkey.

Herbalists sometimes prescribe Greek oregano to help relieve toothache.

Thriving in hot, dry climates, Greek oregano grows in compact clumps that usually reach about 51 cm in height. It is an aggressive species and can easily invade a garden if left unchecked. The herb’s leaves and stems are a deep green and covered in tiny white hairs. Blooming in early summer, the plant displays a small, featureless white flower.

Greek oregano is especially popular in the Mediterranean region as a topping for pizzas and casseroles.

Easily grown from seed, Greek oregano can also be grown from seedlings in summer or by division in spring. Because it is very resistant to drought, the plant does not do well in humid or poorly drained environments. If left to itself in well-drained soil with plenty of sunlight, the plant will thrive. The first leaf crop should be in early summer, when flowering begins with a second in autumn. Harvested leaves can be hung to dry in a cool, well-ventilated place or stored in a closed jar in the dark.

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Vegetable stews may feature Greek oregano.

The medicinal use of oregano can be traced back to Hippocrates and has been a staple of European folk medicine for hundreds of years. Its leaves and stems are highly antiseptic. Oregano tea is sometimes used to soothe an upset stomach and to relieve respiratory problems. Oil made from oregano is found in many cosmetic products and is still used for toothache relief.

However, it is in cooking that Greek oregano has established itself as a preferred ingredient. Traditional Greek and Italian dishes came to depend on this subspecies of oregano. Grilled meats, especially lamb, tomato sauces and various Mediterranean regional vegetable stews would be incomplete without it. Greek oregano has become the preferred substitute for less flavorful varieties around the world and has found its way into the traditional recipes of many nations. To preserve its distinctive flavor, which can be lessened in cooking, the herb is also popular as a topping for dishes like pizza and casseroles.

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