Greek oregano, Origanum vulgare hirtum, is a perennial herb native to Greece and Turkey. Historically, the plant was cultivated widely throughout the Mediterranean basin. Brought by European immigrants, it now grows wild in the eastern United States. Prized in cooking for its distinctive flavor, Greek oregano also has several medicinal uses.
Closely related to the marjoram family, there are a number of subspecies of the Origanum vulgare family. Most of these are quite flavorless and have no absolutely no culinary value. The hirtum subspecies is intended when Greek oregano is specified, though there are lesser known subspecies with a similar taste including gracile from Khirgizstan and onites from Crete and Turkey.
Thriving in warm, dry climates, Greek oregano grows in compact clumps that usually reach about 20 inches (51 cm) in height. It is an aggressive species and can easily overrun a garden when left to grow unchecked. The herb's leaves and stems are a deep green and covered with tiny, white hairs. Coming into bloom in early summer, the plant displays an unimpressive small, white flower.
Easily grown from seed, Greek oregano can also be grown from cuttings in summer or by division in the spring. As this is very drought resistant, the plant does not do well in humid environments or areas with poor drainage. Left to itself in well-drained, average soil with ample sunlight the plant will thrive. The first harvest of leaves should be in early summer when blooming begins with a second in the fall. Harvested leaves can be hung to dry in a cool, well ventilated area, or stored in a sealed jar in darkness.
The medicinal use of oregano can be traced back to Hippocrates and it has been a staple of European folk medicine for hundreds of years. Its leaves and stems are highly antiseptic. Oregano tea is sometimes used to soothe an upset stomach and to relieve respiratory problems. Oil made from oregano is found in many cosmetic products and is still used for toothache relief.
It is in cooking that Greek oregano has established itself as a preferred ingredient, however. Traditional Greek and Italian dishes have come to rely on this subspecies of oregano. Grilled meats, particularly lamb, tomato sauces and various regional Mediterranean vegetable stews would be incomplete without it. Greek oregano has become the favored replacement for less flavorful varieties worldwide, and has found its way into the traditional recipes of many nations. To preserve is distinct flavor, which may be diminished in cooking, the herb is also popular as a topping for dishes such as pizza and casseroles.