Marjoram is a perennial herb in the mint family that grows wild in the Mediterranean region. It is used primarily as seasoning in cooked dishes but is also found in beauty and health care products. Often mistaken for oregano, marjoram is frequently called by many different names, including sweet marjoram, knotted marjoram, joy of the mountains, and wintersweet. The current scientific name for this plant, Origanum majorana, is sometimes used interchangeably with its previous name, Majorana hortensis.
A bittersweet, mild spice, marjoram is common in German and Polish cooking, where it is an important part of the spice mixture for sausage. It is also found in the popular English dish of roast goose with chestnut stuffing. In French cooking, it's often included in mixtures of dried herbs called herbes de Provence, and in Italy and Greece, it is often used in sauces and meat dishes. Marinades, salad dressings, and soups can all benefit from this herb. Bouquet garnis, or bundles of fresh herbs, often include marjoram.
Both fresh and dried leaves can be used, and marjoram keeps its flavor well when dried. The fresh herb is usually found in the produce section of the grocery store. Either thyme or oregano can be used as substitutes, although their flavors tend to be a bit stronger, so cooks may want to use a bit less than the recipe calls for.
Health and Beauty Uses
Marjoram is used in body care products, including skin cream, bath bars, body lotion, body wash, and shaving gel. Since the leaves are aromatic, their oils are often added to scent these products. The essential oil is also found in aromatherapy treatments, where it is said to be warming and spicy, and to provide a soothing effect. It is often recommended as a treatment for insomnia and stress.
Eugenol, a compound found in this herb, has antiseptic and anesthetic properties, meaning that it kills germs and can numb sensation. It can also act as an anti-inflammatory, relieving swelling. Although this compound is present in relatively small amounts in marjoram, the plant is used by some people to treat inflammation and help with digestion; it may be used as a tea to help relieve both flatulence and nausea. Marjoram may also relieve cramps and increase menstrual flow; therefore, most experts recommend that medicinal quantities not be taken during pregnancy.
The plant can grow to about 12 to 18 inches (30.5 to 46 cm) tall and has green, rounded leaves that give off a pleasant, piney fragrance. The small clusters of flowers, ranging from pink to lavender, normally bloom in July. Once the flowers bud, the leaves can be harvested and used for cooking or medicines. Fresh leaves can be dried by spreading them in a cool, well-ventilated place.
Although marjoram is a perennial, meaning that it lives for several years, it usually does not survive cold temperatures. It's native to the Mediterranean region, and does best with hot, relatively dry summers and very mild winters. As a result, it must usually be replanted each year if it's grown outside in cooler places. Marjoram can be grown in pots, however, and moved indoors when the temperature drops. It prefers full sun, well-drained soil, and room to spread.
Marjoram vs. Oregano
There is a great deal of confusion between marjoram and oregano. They are related plants, but are two different species. They also taste similar, although oregano often has a stronger flavor, and both contain high amounts of antioxidants. To make it even more confusing, cretan oregano, O. onites, is also called French or pot marjoram and Greek oregano, O. vulgare, is often called wild marjoram.
Despite the many similarities, they are not the same plant. Oregano is a hardy perennial that is taller than the more cold-sensitive marjoram. Marjoram also prefers a moister soil.
Some people have suggested that hyssop, mentioned in the Passover ritual for marking the door posts and in John 19:29, was actually Egyptian marjoram (O. maru). In Greek and Roman culture, the herb symbolized wealth and happiness and was often used to make wreaths. The plant is also mentioned in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 99, in which the speaker reproves various flowering plants for having stolen their best elements from his love.