Marjoram: A Culinary (and Medicinal) Delight

This little-known herb has the flavor of its more popular sister plant, oregano, but brings a milder sweetness to oregano’s signature bite.

| Fall 2012

“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.

Growing Marjoram

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.

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