Marjoram or oregano

These two plants are among those that I use often in herbal teas, as essential oils and hydrosols, grow in my garden or harvest wild. However I have noticed that there is often confusion between the two, it is not uncommon to read about Origanum majorana commonly known as Marjoram and see a photo or drawing of Origanum vulgare, commonly known as oregano, next to the text. Nor is it uncommon to go on a guided tour around a herb garden and hear the guide calling marjoram, oregano… but why and what makes it so difficult to get these two plant’s identities clearly sorted out? Well for one, they are both 
from the Origanum genus
(belonging to the Lamiaceae
family), a large genus
containing several different
sections and a huge number
of species, subspecies and
hybrids and a complicated
taxonomic history. Linnaeus
first classified it as a single
genus and then over the
years the plants were ordered
under various botanical names
including Amaracus, Origanum and Marjorana. 
For the purpose of this article I will be concentrating on the two aforementioned plants and their differences botanically, ecologically and medicinally. The genus Origanum contains plants that are rich in essential oils and have been used for thousands of years as condiments and medicines. The word origanum comes form oros in Greek, meaning mountain and perhaps ganousthai meaning ‘delight in’, which probably refers to the fact that the origanum species that have the highest essence content grow wild in the mountains.

Let us begin by looking at the botanical differences in the two plants;

Origanum vulgare is a thermophile, woody perennial, which grows to an average of between 20 to 60 cm’s high but can grow higher in certain conditions. It has a woody rhizome and quadrangular, reddy- purplish stems, the simple, oval, dark green leaves are arranged opposite each other and have short stalks, the upper leaves are sometimes sessile, the whole plant is covered with soft hairs and has a pleasant, recognizable odor. It flowers between July and September and the inflorescences are densely inserted at the extremities of the plant’s stems on small branches. The flowers (typical of this family) have an upper and lower lip, and a bell shaped calyx with more or less equally sized teeth. They are purple, pink or white, the buds being a deeper color than the flowers themselves, here where I live they are always purple, I have in fact never seen them in another color and they are also most commonly depicted in books with purple flowers. The stamens are prominent and the oval, leaf-like bracts are often tinted a reddish purple.

origanum vulgare (1)

 Origanum majorana is a perennial but often considered an annual when grown in Northern climates, as it is indigenous to Mediterranean areas and does not survive harsh winters (half hardy). It grows to a maximum height of 60cms and tends to be bushier than the Origanum vulgare. The stems are woody and greeny-brown rather than purple and not as rigid as the former meaning that rather than growing completely upright, marjoram has a tendency to grow in low mounds. Its pubescent leaves are arranged opposite each other and are grey-green, the flowers appear at the extremities as in the Origanum vulgare but are much smaller and white (sometimes slightly pinky). It is the flower buds in this genre that are very noticeable as they look like neat knots; this is where the name knotted marjoram came from. The fruit are brown, tear-shaped nutlets.
Origanum marjorana

Native to the Mediterranean Eurasia, both plants like warm, sunny environments, Origanum vulgare, which grows wild next to my home here in Southwest France, quite happily gets through the harsh sometimes snowy winters and the Origanum majorana, which is not found wild here as it prefers a warmer climate, growing wild for example in Cyprus and Turkey did actually survive as a perennial in my medicinal plant plantation.

Although Origanum vulgare prefers slightly alkaline soil, it can quite easily be found living happily along the roadsides on more acid terrains as long as they are well drained. It grows in most of Europe and to north and western Asia up to 1500 to 2000m altitude.

So as we have seen, these two plants do have similarities but are NOT in anyway the same plant, they are visually different, have different requirements in terms of where they grow and although some of their medicinal uses overlap, they have very different properties and constituents. What is for sure is that they are both great allays to the herbalist.

Some of the earliest records of origanum use date back to 1600-1200BC when images of the plants were inscribed on tablets by the Hittites of Asia Minor/Syria. (1) As the two plants in question have so often over history been called by the same name, it is necessary to view any historical descriptions in a broad sense.Origanum (probably marjoranum) was a symbol of love for the Greeks and Romans. It was woven into the floral headband that couples wore for their marriage and was also one of the ingredients in the many available love elixirs and balms. One of the warming herbs used to heal broken hearts, it was also planted on tombs to help the dead find peace. Both the plants in question were considered to be protective against magic spells and bad spirits, marjoram scattered in doorways kept the devil away from the house.

Origanum majoranum and Origanum vulgare have both been used historically and are still used in different parts of the world for cooking. In my experience both plants taste better in cooking when used young, that is to say before flowering, where I find their taste becomes a little more bitter. Oregano is known as the ‘Pizza’ herb and it does marry very well with tomatoes and Italian style dishes. I use it as one of the ingredients in my herby salt, where I find it adds a certain peppery sharpness and retains its flavor.Marjoram has a milder, sweeter flavour and is considered as the ‘meat’ herb, it is better to use fresh as being milder, it tends to loose its depth of flavour when dried.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Oregano grows wild where I live, on slightly acid, very draining soils at 600metres altitude. I have taken a few examples from the wild and replanted them in my teaching gardens and funnily enough, they grew without really prospering as if they were cross with me and trying to tell me that I could wild-craft them nearby so why was I trying to grow them – probably to do with less draining soils as well. As for marjoram, I had a few 
hundred plants in my plantation a few years ago, it grew very well on the poor, sandy soils of the Beaujolais region of south-east France, surviving winter and providing two crops per season. Probably due to the dry, harsh growing conditions, the essential oil content was lovely and high, this was made evident when distilling it for its hydrosol as it also provided enough of a lovely yellowy- orange oil on top of the hydrosol to take off with a pipette and use…exciting!

I dry both plants and use them regularly in my herbal tea mixes but not for the same reasons, although as I said they they can overlap.
I use Origanum vulgare in digestive blends, especially when digestion is slow and difficult, like thyme it has an anti-putrefying action on the digestion helping to relieve gas and abdominal swelling. I also use it in respiratory blends for its strong antiseptic qualities when there is infection.

I look at Origanum majoranum’s principal quality as being its ability to help bring balance and healing through its action on the nervous system by both relaxing and toning at the same time. Its antispasmodic and toning/ relaxing action helps relieve anxiety and stress without making the person sleepy. It also has an important role to play in respiratory tract problems where its calming action helps with the uncomfortable spasms linked to coughs and asthma for example and its toning qualities help strengthen the respiratory system as well as having an expectorant action on mucus. Its terrific calming capacity also helps with problems such as spasms and colitis in the digestive system and like its cousin oregano, helps eliminate putrefaction.

Both plants are high in essences and their essential oils provide valuable tools to the herbalist and aromatherapist. Although some of their virtues may cross over, they are generally used very differently. O. vulgare is great to have on hand at the first signs of flu or bacterial infection, a drop or two taken internally in a teaspoon of honey or in aromatic capsules can actually stop the bacteria in their footsteps so to speak. It has yielded one of the most potent antibacterial agents on its activity against a wide range of microorganisms including E.coli, Streptococcus and Salmonella, thanks to its high thymol and carvacrol content (2) , this coupled with an immune stimulating and antiviral action make it an excellent flu deterrent. It is also a powerful antifungal and anti-parasite useful in Candida albicans amongst other fungal infections. It is used in agriculture and gardening pulverised in a dispersant against parasites. Due to its high phenol content however, this oil is irritant to the skin and should not be used externally, dilute carefully and respect the doses for internal use as it is also irritant to mucous membranes, avoid its use in young children and pregnant women.

Marjoram’s soothing action is very evident in its essential oil, helping one release negative feelings and tension and get back into balance. Linked to these calming, re-balancing virtues is a hypotensive action making it a great oil for stressed, overworked business people with high blood pressure – ‘a wind down at the end of a busy day oil’. Use a 20% dilution when using externally and avoid its use with pregnant women.
Its calming effect can also be handy with children, who have worked themselves into a tantrum and are bordering on hysterical, in these cases Patrice’s homeopathic granules of essential oil of Marjoram are very practical combining both the safety of a homeopathic dilution with the powerfulness of an essential oil. Use a 20% dilution when using the essential oil externally and avoid its use with pregnant women.

To keep this article short and simple, I have looked at the two most commonly used Origanum species, this is however just a starting point. For anyone wishing to go further, there are many interesting species from this genus, certain endemic to specific places such as Origanum sipyleum from Turkey or Origanum dictamnus from Crete, there are also several other essential oils available such as Origanum onites, although less commonly used, none the less very interesting.

(1) Kitiki, Ayse. 1997. Status of cultivation and use of oregano in turkey. in oregano: proceedings of the iPGri international workshop on oregano 8-12 May 1996, CIHEAM, Valenzano (Bari), Italy. edited by s. Padulosi. rome: international Plant Genetic resources institute.

(2) The biological/pharmacological activity of the origanum Genus
dea bariˇceviˇc and tomaˇz bartol