OREGANO (Origanum vulgare – Labiatae)

The oregano plant (Origanum vulgare) is a member of the marjoram family, and is known also as common or wild marjoram. The name comes from the Greek, oros, mountain, and ganos, joy, after its favourite habitat. It grows wild all over Europe, particularly in Italy and Greece (where it is known as rigani). The plant is similar to marjoram, but with crimson flowers, a creeping habit and stems that can rise to about 30 – 45 cm (1 – 1 ½ ft) high. The flowers bloom in July and August.

Margoram and oregano have been thoroughly confused throughout history, both botanically and culinarily, therefore it is difficult to identify which herb is being discussed in old herbals and medical treatises. Theophrastus, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Pliny revered oregano as a strong antiseptic for the respiratory system, and for wounds, ulcers and burns. They believed it also helped the digestion in cookery; and Apicius, the famous Roman gourmet, gave recipes using oregano, including a seasoning of salt and oregano which is still in vogue now (particularly on pizzas).

In his treatise on common plants (1837), Dr Cazin recommended oregano oil for aches and pains due to cold and ‘flu, used as a friction on the body and in a hot bath; he also described it as stimulant, stomachic, expectorant, sudorific and emmenagogic. Dr Leclerc confirmed its effectiveness in the treating of ailments of the respiratory system l and also described it as a good stimulant and stomachic for those with digestive problems due to nerves or eating too fast.


Description: The flower tops are distilled to make the essential oil which is dark yellow to pale brown and smells aggressively phenolic, spicy and hot.

The principal constituents: The plant and oil are very similar to marjoram and to thyme (country people often call oregano ‘shepherd’s thyme’ for this very reason), and has similar properties to other plants of the Labiatae family.

Oregano is the most important antiseptic oil in aromatherapy. Its propor¬tion of phenol – the constituent responsible for the strongest antibacterial action – is the highest of all aromatic plants. The chemical constituents of the plants, however, vary from one species to another, and depend on the provenance. The soil in which it is grown is particularly important. Oregano oils are normally high, from 80 – 90 per cent, in phenols (thymol and carvacrol); there is a little borneol, pinene and terpineol, and traces of esters.

Dangers: Buy oregano oil very carefully, and from a reputable source, as it is often falsified, frequently being completely synthetic, without a trace of the essential oil itself. If there is any doubt at all, rely on the benefits of the fresh herb instead.


In illness
Oregano oil works successfully on eczema, psoriasis and mycosis (para¬sitic fungus), for rheumatic conditions, and the pains of shingles and neuralgia.

It is also good for late periods. Make a massage oil with 5 ml (1 tsp) almond oil and 4 drops oregano oil, and massage clockwise gently on the stomach and lower part of the back for a few minutes. Repeat three times a day, morning, midday, and late afternoon.
For a rheumatic remedy, make up a poultice (see pages 23 – 4), using 1 cup linseed, 300 ml (10 fl oz) boiling water and 10 drops oregano oil. Clean the work surface first with a few drops of oregano oil before preparing the poultice. Apply the poultice and leave in place until cool.

Afterwards apply an oil made from 10 ml (2 tsp) almond oil, 2 drops wheatgerm oil and 8 drops oregano oil, and massage gently into the affected part. This oil would also be effective for sciatica, tennis elbow and lumbago.
(See also abscesses and boils, bronchitis, colic, coughing, diarrhoea, flatulence, migraine, pneumonia and stings and bites.)

In cookery
Oregano can be used as marjoram, but is much more pungent. The variety grown in Italy, and sold dried in markets, is particularly strong in flavour, and the herb is very important in Italian cooking. It is the flavouring of pizzas from Naples, but is also used with tomato, cheese, bean, vegetable, fish and meat dishes.

Marguerite Maury recommended cooking mushrooms with marjoram and oregano as all fungi contain a substance called chitin which can be very indigestible. Similarly, use both herbs when cooking cabbage, pulses and turnips, which can be equally indigestible and cause wind. A wild marjoram tea, called ‘red tea’, is drunk in Switzerland after a heavy meal, and to help the digestion of fondue (this can also prevent chills in cold weather).

Other uses
To utilize the spectacular antiseptic powers of oregano at home, add a few drops of essential oil to washing-up liquid and other soapy household products. Put a few drops on a tissue or cloth and clean surfaces in the bathroom.

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