"Bastard Marjerome of Candy," wrote John Gerard in his famous "Herball," "hath many threddy roots; from which rise up drivers weake and feeble branches trailing upon the ground, set with faire greene leaves, not unlike those of Penny Royall, but broader and shorter; at the top of those branches stand scalie or chaffie eares of a purple colour. The whole plant is of a most pleasant sweet smell. The root endured in my garden and the leaves also greene all this Winter long, 1597, although it hath beene said that it doth perish at the first frost, as sweet Marjerome doth."
"Bastard Marjerome" is oregano (alias origam, organum or, if you are old-fashioned, organy). It may well be that the plant that flourished in Gerard's garden was the first in England, because 1597 would have been about the date of its original appearance there.
Gerard, who received plants and seeds from all over the world, was often the first to grow a new species. He distinguished between marjoram and oregano, which is more tha most people can do today. Each of these delightful spicy herbs has its own personality and we can attempt to define oregano in terms of its differences from marjoram.
Oregano differs in name, or at least it does from those who keep its name straight. This should be easiest fro those who use its scientific name. A species whose generic name is Origanum is oregano. If it is Majorana, it is marjoram. Unfortunately, Linnaeus, one of the greatest to use scientific terminology and who invented a great deal of it, mixed things up by baptizing marjoram Origanum majorana. Curiously, the generic name Origanum was used correctly before Linnaeus' time, as well as after it. Gerard called it Origanum hispanicum in his text and Origanum creticum under the drawing which accompanied it. We are often told, picture squely, that origanum means "brightness of the hill," "joy of the mountain," or something similar, on the supposition that the world combines the Greek oras, hill or mountain, and ganos, brightness or gladness. Perhaps it does, but the monumental Liddell and Scott Greek Dictionary suggests no such origin for origanos, which it defines as "an acrid herb." Liddell and Scott defines Theophrastus's origanos leuke as Origanum heracleoticum (called winter marjoram by some contemporary writers) or "organy." Just when we think matters have been straightened out, however, it goes on to identify the same author's origanos melaina, Origanum vivide, as marjoram! It seems that we have to send Theophrastus to stand in the corner along with Linnaeus.
Popular usage ordinarily identifies oregano by adding some qualifying adjective to the word marjoram. One such combination is that used by Gerard - bastard marjoram. Another is wild marjoram, which probably dates from the time when oregano was only picked wild. But nowadays wild marjoram is usually equated with Origanum vulgare, the only species that is cultivated. Dwarf marjoram is another term; oregano does not grow as high as marjoram but its leaves, as Gerard noted, are thicker and bushier. Country folk call oregano "shepherd's thyme," a percipient name, since it is indeed very close to thyme in its chemical composition.
Oregano also differs in its botanical nature and one of those differences meshes with what seems to be a confusion in names. Books that give directions for growing herbs sometimes tell us that marjoram can be grown in window boxes or indoors in pots. It even can be grown in containers occupied by other seasoners, chives or parsley, for instance. But, the books add, in these restricted spaces, marjoram sometimes develops a sort of neurosis and begins, inexplicably, to languish. It can only be saved by moving it outdoors. I suspect that this occurs when the herb grower has planted, inadvertently, not marjoram, but oregano. Oregano is ill-adapted for planting in pots, despite the fact that some writers use "pot marjoram" as a synonym for oregano, usually informing us at the same time that there is a species called Origanum onites especially adapted for this purpose.
For the fact is that oregano should not be grown in pots at all. It has a spreading root system and tends to sprawl over the ground (Gerard noted this too). Marjoram, although it bends gracefully from its greater height, still remains erect. Marjoram stays where it is put; oregano demands room for expansion.
Oregano is hardier than marjoram and consequently enjoys a wider distribution. Marjoram sticks very close to the Mediterranean, where it was born. Oregano penetrates into even cool reaches of the temperate zone (today it grows wild in England, for instance). Gerard called it "bastard Marjerome of Candy," that is, of Ceylon.We may guess that it was oregano, the traveler tht was sacred to Shiva and vishnu, although it may well have been marjoram which in Egypt was dedicated to Osiris. Oregano will grow on quite arid soils that marjoram would not appreciate. In southern and western France, oregano is particularly flavorful when it comes from barren hillsides exposed to much sun. But along the Mediterranean coast oregano is richer in oil and is, therefore, better suited for its second most important use, that of making perfume. France has a special species, Origanum megastachyum, so-called because it develops a particularly large, conspicuous flower stalk.
There is one troubling fact about the distribution of oregano that might seem to cast doubt on the accuracy with which oregano has now been distinguished from marjoram. Foods as a rule are most widely eaten in the territories to which they are native. On this basis, marjoram should be favored in the Mediterranean region, oregano elsewhere. The observable fact is just the opposite. The Mediterranean prefers oregano. This may be explained because it differs in taste. Mediterranean people (and people in hot countries generally) like stronger, hotter foods than people of cooler regions. Oregano smells and tastes stronger than the delicate sweet marjoram, and (as, again, Gerard noted) gives off a pungent odor in the garden, whereas marjoram hardly makes its presence felt unless it is bruised. Oregano is essential to Latin cookery, says the Encyclopedia Britannica, by which we should probably understand "Mediterranean cookery." Neapolitans insist that Oregano, not marjoram, should flavor pizza. The Bolognese make the same stipulation for their ragu. The Near East uses it freely on dishes of tomato and egg-plant, and the Greeks, on their mutton kebab.