This little-known herb has the flavor of its more popular sister plant, oregano, but brings a milder sweetness to oregano’s signature bite.
“Can you identify this herb?” the letter began. “I bought this plant somewhere but don’t have a clue what it’s for.” Upon opening the packet inside the letter, I recognized the plant immediately. The sweet piney-citrus aroma of sweet marjoram burst forth.
Sweet marjoram (Origanum marjorana) also called simply, marjoram, isn’t one of the more popular herbs in American kitchens. Higher on the list of favorites is oregano, which in the same family as marjoram, although what many people think of as “pizza” flavor isn’t pure oregano; it’s more often a mixture of marjoram and oregano. Oregano is the stronger-flavored herb with a bit of a “bite” on the tongue, while marjoram is sweeter and milder (some describe it as more of a woody-balsamic flavor). The name “Sweet Marjoram” hails from ancient times, when dairy farmers grazed their goats and cattle where marjoram grew in the belief that the herb kept the milk sweet, meaning it would prevent it from souring.
There has been confusion over the centuries whether marjoram was actually in the Origanum (oregano) family. Some botanists once believed marjoram was a separate plant altogether and gave it the Latin name of Marjorana hortensis. Dr. Art O. Tucker, a botanist at Delaware State University who specializes in the identification and chemistry of herbs, says the correct classification is Origanum marjorana, putting it solidly in the family of Origanums — a genus which consists of over 44 species.
Marjoram is a cold-sensitive perennial, native to the Mediterranean region; 90 percent of the world’s supply of marjoram comes from Egypt. The herb grows to only 12 to 14 inches high, smaller than oregano, and blooms in mid-summer. Like oregano and other herbs, it performs best if clipped back on a regular basis.
Marjoram is a perennial but not cold-hardy, so most people grow it as an annual. It can survive in a variety of soils and climates but flourishes in dry, rocky conditions that mimic its Mediterranean native habitat. Like most of its oregano cousins, it will thrive with little fertilizer if planted in soil that has gravel, sand, and compost. An annual application of garden lime or even eggshells is also helpful.
While the plant can sometimes survive potting soils heavy with peat moss, it will do better in a raised bed in the garden in poorer soil. Like oregano, marjoram can tolerate some shade, but it will have the best aroma and flavor if grown with a minimum of a half day of sunshine — 8 or 10 hours being even better. The plant prefers well-drained soil, and while marjoram shouldn’t be allowed to completely dry out, it requires less moisture than an herb such as basil.
It’s easy to start marjoram indoors from seed in early spring. As soon as the average no-frost date has passed for your area, plant your marjoram in the garden or patio pot. Once it begins to flower, you can start clipping it for culinary use.
It’s a good idea to have two or three marjoram plants; that way you can cut one back by half to use and the next week, cut the next plant allowing the first to grow back. This new growth before flowering has the best flavor for cooking and you can’t hurt the plant by pruning; remember, it withstands goats and cattle grazing its tops! Propagation of marjoram can also be easily done by taking cuttings, divisions or layering.
When cooking with marjoram (a fact that holds true for nearly all herbs) add it to your dish near the end of cooking time. Why? If you add marjoram, oregano, thyme, basil or similar in the beginning of a dish that’s meant to cook for 45 minutes to an hour, much of the essential oils will evaporate, often leaving a slightly bitter flavor, or no flavor at all. By adding the herb to a soup or stew in the last 10 minutes of cooking, it will provide the best, freshest flavor of the herb. Marjoram is delightfully aromatic, but the flavors can be ruined by over-cooking.
The fresh herb is much superior to dried, but you can substitute dried if fresh isn’t available. If a recipe calls for marjoram and you don’t have it, use about half to two-thirds the amount of oregano instead. Dried marjoram will retain most of its flavor and fragrance for about 9 months (this 9-month rule is true for most herbs). After about 9 months, any dried herb has lost as much as 50 percent of its flavor.
Marjoram is more favored than oregano in French cooking and you’ll find it as an ingredient in the traditional French seasoning, Herbs de Provence. It’s also one of the herbs in the seasoning blend known as Za’atar that’s used in Arabian cooking.
A USDA study revealed both marjoram and oregano contain high amounts of antioxidants, more when fresh than dry. Marjoram is used in skin creams, soaps, body lotions and shaving gels. It’s best known, however, for its use in Greek and Italian cooking. The flavor combines well with oregano for pizza seasoning. Because marjoram is in the overall mint (Lamiaceae) family, the herb was used in ancient times as a digestive aid, much like mint is today. Singers historically used marjoram tea, sweetened with honey, to preserve their singing voices.
In both Greek and Roman cultures, bridal couples were crowned with wreaths of marjoram to symbolize love, happiness and honor. In ancient Egypt, oregano was used as a preservative in foods (also an ingredient in embalming practices) and in folk medicines.
While most people think of marjoram, and its cousin, oregano, as ingredients in pasta sauces and pizza, it has much wider culinary uses. Marjoram is an important ingredient in poultry seasonings for chicken and turkey dishes and stuffing for the holidays. The sweet flavor compliments seafood, carrots, lentils, beans, cauliflower, spinach, mushrooms and squash. It’s also used in sausages, cheese mixtures, even ice cream, custards, pies and fruit desserts! (Try freshly-chopped marjoram sprinkled over bite-sized, chilled honeydew melon with a dash of freshly-squeezed lime juice for a surprising taste treat.).
First-time herb growers are often hesitant to prune their herbs, even though all the books on growing them stress its importance. An easy way to remember the importance of pruning is to remember where many herbs originate. The Mediterranean region for thousands of years has been home to cattle and goats, grazing on the hillsides. The animals eat almost anything with leaves, therefore, marjoram (along with thyme, oregano, lavender, basil, sage and several others native to that part of the world) has adapted over eons of time to being constantly clipped back by goats. Without that “grazing,” or in a gardener’s case, clipping back often, those herbs can quickly go to seed and die. (Ancient Greeks used to graze their cattle on fields of marjoram and oregano in the belief it produced tastier meat). Clip and use the herbs limbs and blooming tops every couple of weeks to keep it growing well.
Here’s an easy, fall harvest dish that introduces you to the wonderful flavor of marjoram. Use the fresh herb, leaves stripped from the stem (you don’t need to chop them).
4-6 servings as side salad
• 5 ears fresh corn
• 1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil
• 2 large heirloom tomatoes, diced
• 1 large avocado, peeled and diced
• 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
• 2 tablespoons fresh marjoram leaves
1. Cook the corn in a pot of boiling water, about 5 minutes. Cool, then cut the kernels from the cobs.
2. Combine remaining ingredients, tossing lightly.
3. Serve at room temperature or chill for 10 minutes.
Jim Long writes and gardens in the Ozarks Mountains of Missouri. You can see and follow his gardening adventures on his blog: jimlongsgarden.blogspot.com.