MARJORAM (Origanum majorana – Labiatae)

Marjoram is thought to have originated in Asia, but is now grown all over Europe. It grows in abundance in Tunisia – where it is known as khezama, the Arab name for lavender – carpeting the fields between almond and olive trees. There are three major varieties: sweet or knotted marjoram (Origanum majorana), pot marjoram (0. onites), and wild marjoram (0. vulgare) or oregano; marjoram and oregano have been confused throughout history. Sweet or knotted is a small sub-shrub of about 50 cm (1%. ft) in height; it has reddish stems with hairy, oval, greyish leaves. Knot-like clusters of pink, white or mauve flowers open from June to September. The origin of the name marjoram is obscure, but is thought to have derived from the medieval Latin ‘majorana’ and Old French ‘mariol’, the latter alluding to the knots of flowers which look like little marionettes.

The plant was considered sacred to Shiva and Vishnu in India, and to Osiris in Egypt. To the Greeks it was ‘amarakos’, a symbol of love and honour, and young married couples would be crowned with flowers. Aphrodite used it to cure her son Aeneas’ wounds (it had been scentless, apparently, until she touched it). Ointments were made with it to retain the natural colour and lustre of hair and eyebrows.

Dioscorides made a pommade called ‘amaricimum’ with marjoram for nervous disorders; Pliny prescribed it for stomach disorders and flatulence. In the Middle Ages, St Hildegarde warned people not to touch the plant as she considered it a remedy only for leprosy, and that it could initiate other skin disorders. The School of Salerno classified marjoram as an antispasmodic and a good expectorant, and prescribed it for easing and facilitating labour.
In Renaissance times, pots of the herb were grown, and jams and perfumed sachets were made for chest infections; marjoram mixed with honey was taken for coughs. A poultice of marjoram applied externally helped jaundice and other liver afflictions. In the seventeenth century, a famous Danish physician called Fabricius received 200 gold ecus for curing the soldier Wallenstein of a cold and rheumatic pains. Later, the apothecaries of the eighteenth century classified marjoram as sternutatory (causing sneezes)!

In 1720, J B Chomel, head of the Academy of Medicine in France, recommended that it be inhaled in dried and powdered form to fortify the brain and reduce fatigue; the herb added to a wine would help the nerves and circulation. F J Cazin, in his history of natural drugs in 1876, prescribed marjoram for nervous disorders such as apoplexy, paralysis, dizziness, epilepsy and loss of memory.


Description: Marjoram oil is distilled from the flowering heads. When fresh it is a greenish-yellow which turns brown with age. The smell is very aromatic reminiscent of camphor, thyme and cardamom with a little peppery note. The principal constituents: Over 80 per cent phenols (carvacrol and thymol), with borneol, camphor, cineol, cymene, pinene, sabinene and terpineol.

Dangers: For some conditions, the oil works better on older people, as it can occasionally provoke the opposite effect on the young. Always measure out doses very carefully, and I advise that it never be used on young or sensitive people or children without proper prescription.


In illness
Marjoram oil is a stomachic, expectorant, and sedative, good for treating insomnia, migraines, dysmenorrhoea and diarrhoea. It is also a good antiseptic, but not as strong as its sister oregano.

It is particularly good when you are tired or suffering from sleepless¬ness or nervous tension. Dr Leclerc confirmed its sedative or stupefacient properties, as did Dr R M Gattefosse and his team, and it has been classified as such. There are several ways in which marjoram can be used. For lack of sleep and nervous fatigue, add 5 drops marjoram oil and 2 of orange to a warm bath. Follow with a massage oil made from 10 ml (2 tsp) soya oil, 6 drops marjoram and 4 drops orange. Another effective massage oil for the same symptoms consists of 10 ml (2 tsp) soya oil, 2 drops wheatgerm, 4 drops nutmeg, 3 drops rosemary and 8 drops marjoram. For insomnia, drink a tisane made from a pinch each of dried marjoram and dried lime flowers, half an hour before going to bed. One drop each of marjoram and orange oils on a tissue beside your bed can also calm you and help you sleep.

Marjoram is very effective in mouth disorders because of its antiseptic properties. For thrush or gum infections, or the sore throat at the start of a cold, make a mouthwash from 300 ml (1/2 pint) warm boiled water and 1 drop marjoram oil. If you haven’t any oil, make a strong decoction of leaves and flowers and use as a mouth rinse.
I use it too for earache caused by a cold. Warm a bottle of almond oil under the hot tap, then mix 1 drop of marjoram oil with 5 ml (1 tsp) warmed almond. Dip a small piece of cotton wool in this and insert inside the affected ear. Leave overnight and repeat in the morning if the pain has not gone.
(See also anorexia nervosa, asthma, bruises, cuts and wounds, depres¬sion, flatulence and stress.)

In cookery
Fresh marjoram’s smell reminds me a little of basil; in flavour it is rather like thyme, but sweeter and more scented. Pot marjoram is not nearly as sweet, being rather bitter. (Oregano is more pungent than both.) Marjoram features in many Tunisian, Italian, Portuguese and Provencale dishes, and is one of the most important culinary herbs. It can be dried successfully.

The Ancient Egyptians used it to enhance the flavour of meat and help assimilate the minerals from it, and it is very useful still in marinades, bouquet garnis and stocks. Towards the end of the cooking time, add it to stews, meat dishes, stuffing’s for meat or vegetables, omelettes, to cooked vegetable dishes (it will help the digestion of vegetables like cabbage or beans), and salad. Its therapeutic properties can also be enjoyed by making herbal oil and vinegar for dressings and cooking.

Other uses
Used once as a strewing herb, the dried leaves and flowers can be used in pot-pourris, or in scented and sedative herb pillows

A to Z of Plants