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Origanum

Lamiaceae (Labiatae)
Herbs, Perennials

Mint relatives with tight clusters of small flowers. Each blossom has a collar of bracts—large, colorful, and quite decorative in some species—that can overlap to give the inflorescence the look of a small pinecone. Blossoms are especially attractive to bees, butterflies. Many species have aromatic foliage, and the leaves of several have culinary use. Some are good as ground covers, as trailers to cascade over rocks or retaining walls, or in hanging baskets. Those with conspicuous bracts are attractive dried and used in wreaths and arrangements; cut and hang just as first flowers open.

Not fussy about soil type but need good drainage. In milder climates, many species can become woody with age, but wood of previous seasons is seldom as productive as new growth from the base. For best results, cut previous year's stems to ground in winter or early spring. Propagate by division or from cuttings taken before flower buds form. The various species hybridize freely, and seedlings may not resemble the parents. Colored leaf varieties need a half day of direct sun for best color but can burn in afternoon sun in hot-summer areas.

Origanum dictamnus

Native to Crete. Grows 8 in. high, 2 ft. wide, with slender, arching, 1-ft. stems. Thick, roundish, woolly white leaves to 3/4 in. long. Pink to purplish flowers emerge from rose-tinted light green bracts; blooms summer to fall.

Origanum laevigatum

Native to Turkey, Cyprus. Sprawling plant with grayish green leaves about 1 1/4 in. long; reaches 2 ft. tall in bloom. It spreads by rhizomes and arching stems that root at the joints to form a dense clump 2–3 ft. wide. Branching, airy clusters of 1/2-in., tubular pink or purple flowers and small purplish bracts appear from late spring to fall. Useful as bank or ground cover.

Sweet marjoram
Sweet marjoram

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Origanum majorana

Native to the Mediterranean and Turkey. To 1–2 ft. tall and wide. Oval gray-green leaves to 3/4 in. long. Inconspicuous white flowers emerge from clusters of knotlike heads at top of plant. Keep blossoms cut off and plant trimmed to encourage fresh growth. Fresh or dried leaves are used for seasoning meats, scrambled eggs, salads, vinegars, casseroles, tomato dishes.

In cold-winter areas, this is often grown as a summer annual, and in pots on sunny windowsills indoors.

Origanum rotundifolium

Native to Turkey, Armenia, Georgia. Dense, suckering plant grows 8 in. high, 1 ft. wide, bearing numerous wiry stems set with pairs of virtually stemless, blue-green, 1-in. leaves that have a rounded heart shape. Blooms throughout summer, bearing spikes of small pale pink blossoms and green, 2–3-in.-long bracts like those of hop (Humulus) at stem ends (bracts almost obscure the flowers).

Origanum vulgare

Native to most of Europe and temperate Asia. Upright growth to 2 1/2 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide. Oval dark green leaves to 1 1/2 in. long and 3/4 in. wide; white or purplish pink blossoms from midsummer to early fall.

Fresh or dried leaves are used in many dishes, especially Spanish and Italian ones. Most wild forms have scentless leaves; be sure to choose a selected form with a good aroma and a flavor that you like.

For best flavor, keep this plant trimmed to prevent flowering, but let some clumps bloom for bees and butterflies to enjoy.

Origanum x majoricum

Hybrid between Origanum majorana and O. vulgare. Grows 1 to 2 ft. tall and wide, with wider, greener leaves than sweet marjoram. The preferred culinary marjoram, this is often grown as an annual.

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