There are some very common mistakes made with these two Mediterranean herbs. Given the level of misunderstandings we thought it worth an entire article to break it down further.
Both species are part of the lamiacaea family, commonly known as the mint family. There then sits over 200 genera under this family title. Both Marjoram and Oregano are in the Origanum genus. Oregano now splits into the species Origanum vulgare. The species or botanical name of Marjoram is Origanum majorana.
Due to close planting there are estimates of 50 species within Origanum. But what does this mean for the average kitchen gardener?
Technical Details About Oregano and Marjoram
The origanum genus has two dominant chemicals present, carvacrol and sabinene hydrate. The carvacrol is the chemical associated with the anti-bacterial properties as well as antifungal properties. This chemical gives off the ‘oregano’ part of the herb. You know that sharp, earthy aroma? Well that comes from carvacrol- which is also present in other plants. Meaning you get varieties like ‘Cuban Oregano’ or ‘Mexican Oregano’ that are in no way shape or form part of the same genus. But can and will be used in recipes as an ‘oregano’.
There are hundreds of other chemicals present but thymol is also a useful one to know about as it does contain further antibacterial properties. The main reason we need to know about it is that it includes the aroma and taste of ‘thyme’. Another earthy and mature flavor. Great for combining herbs when cooking.
How To Plant Oregano and Marjoram
Both oregano and marjoram are drought tolerant and will thrive with a little water followed by periods of dryness. Plant in full sunlight with adequate drainage. They are both native to areas in the Mediterranean which are mountainous and not known for their quality of soil.
In colder climates you will need to provide some support for overwintering. We find that moving the pots of herbs to inside the greenhouse, or to the side of our house provides adequate protection from frosts.
Differences in Appearance Between Oregano and Marjoram
Oregano and Marjoram can look very similar and there are variations within each sub-species. This can lead to confusion when identifying herbs in general but to make it worse the origanum species can cross pollinate. Meaning that there may well be sub-species as yet undocumented.
Let’s look at the common species rather than individual varieties.
Orignaum Vulgare (common oregano) has olive green leaves with a compact shape. The leaves are half an inch in length and the flowers are even smaller at around 1/8 inch each. The flowers grow in spikes that are very pleasing and can come up all Summer.
Origanum Majorana (sweet Marjoram) has leaves that are more sage like in color, grey/green with tiny hairs on the undersides. They grow to around 1/2 inch in length too and produce purple to light pink flowers on the ends of tall spikes.
Culinary Uses For Oregano And Marjoram
This is to provide further confusion as they can both be used in Mediterranean and Italian cooking. Favorite pizza recipes seldom omit one or both of these ingredients. They can both be dried and used in a variety of different dishes, equally useful fresh.
Historically both origanum vulgare and origanum majorana have been referred to as Wild Marjoram and seem almost interchangeable in medicinal uses.
In conclusion it is the Genus that dictates the qualities and characteristics of each herb. Therefore oregano and marjoram are so closely related to be interchangeable in our gardening and our cooking. Therefore do not linger too long on these distinctions if you are a casual cook and herbal gardener. If you would like further guidance for higher level research, check out the American Herb Society link below, it is great for those of us who like the real in depth detail.
- https://www.herbsociety.org – Perfect for a real deep dive into the subject.
- Guide To Growing Marjoram In The UK – Tips and advice to growing and harvesting your marjoram.
- Growing Oregano – A Complete Guide – For anyone who would like to grow their own and survive the Winter!
Look into individual sub-species and find the right one for your garden aesthetically or for your kitchen and cooking needs.