One of the characteristic seasonings of many Greek dishes is oregano. Not just any oregano, mind you, but one of the richly flavored varieties that grow wild in the rugged mountainous areas of Greece.
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*A handy growing summary chart is at the end of the article.*
Cretan oregano, as it’s name implies, is found on the island of Crete, the largest of Greece’s many beautiful islands. It grows elsewhere, but this variety is a predominant type there. It’s flavor is similar to Greek oregano, but with a little more spice and intensity. It’s also known as pot oregano, pot marjoram, and in Greece it is referred to as rigani (REE-gah-nee).
Unlike many varieties of oregano, Cretan oregano grows upright, rather than spreading. This makes it a better option for tighter spaces or in areas where surrounding plants might not be able to compete against a more aggressive one. The plant will grow in a rounded pattern, being about two feet or so all around in both width and height.
The plant starts off in spring with softer stems that are soon covered with massive clusters of flower buds. Soon they will bloom in a profusion of tiny white blossoms that will be mobbed by very happy bees. Not only is the plant stunning with the massive flower display, but it is also very fragrant. Brushing against the leaves releases that quintessential oregano aroma. By the end of summer the blooms will be done, and the stems will often be woody. The plant is evergreen, but may have thinner growth during the winter. Winter is the time I trim mine down to about a foot all around to encourage more green growth in spring, since this is the best for flavor. Trimming is also helpful in keeping the plant more attractive by preventing it from getting too “leggy” in its growth.
The plant is drought and heat tolerant, preferring full sun, which is no surprise given the conditions of it’s native habitat. It is not very cold tolerant, though, being hardy only to zone 8. If you live in a much colder climate, the plant can be grown in a pot and kept indoors during the winter months. If you are in zone 7, you could fake it by growing Cretan oregano in an area that gets a lot of sheltered sun during the winter. Locations near the sides of buildings or brick walls radiate heat during the night that could help, too. Check out a nifty little trick that I use to help protect more sensitive plants by clicking here.
The best time to harvest Cretan oregano is during early spring to early summer, and in the morning when temperatures are cool. In Greece it is usually harvested just before the flowers open. However, the leaves and flowers can be harvested at any time, but once the growth gets more woody, the flavor becomes bitter. The entire stalk will be cut and laid out to dry, then the leaves and flower heads will be stripped off and stored away for use. See my post on Greek oregano for more information on drying.
As for cooking with Cretan oregano, use it anywhere you would use regular oregano. The flavor will be more distinct, with a hint of spiciness to it. It’s unlikely that you’ll find this herb in a regular grocery store, but you might have more luck at a Greek deli. Also, the plant itself is not common at nurseries, but a quick internet search will lead you to several options for buying online.
- Perennial: Plants will live for several years
- Evergreen: leaves may drop during cold spells
- Height: 2 – 3 feet
- Width: 2 – 3 feet
- Sun: full sun, can tolerate some morning or afternoon shade in hot areas
- Water: drought tolerant, but flavor will be better with a little more water, do lot allow soil to be too wet or plant will die off
- Soil pH: neutral to slightly acidic
- Soil type: amend heavy clay or loose sandy soil
- Key nutrients: balanced, fertilizer not likely to be needed
- Planting time: best to start in fall as temperatures drop or in spring before summer heat
- Zones: 8 – 10
5 thoughts on “Cretan Oregano (Oreganum onites)”
Rigani grew well in the garden of our Greek neighbors. We used to hang it to dry, and then do that funny thing to slide all the leaves of the stems to put them into jars. It was different from Italian oregano. The common oregano that grew in my former garden had two different flavors. The vegetative stems that crept along the ground were different from the floral stems that stood up to bloom. The floral stems looked like a smaller version of rigani. Some sort of oregano grows wild at work. It might be considered to be a weed, but it has such a delightful aroma that we just let it go.
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Greek Oregano and the Cretan Oregano have a really similar flavor, but the Greek Oregano can become really weedy. The floral stems are stronger in flavor, which is good because the flavor holds up better during cooking. I have a variety of oregano in my yard and we just ripped out a bunch because it has spread so much. It makes for good smelling compost!
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I sometimes wonder if what my great grandmother used was really Italian. It had better flavor than mine. Some herbs in the neighborhood were Mexican varieties of Spanish or Portuguese herbs. I don’t know if there is a Mexican oregano, but there must be Spanish and Portuguese oregano.
Mexican Oregano is a totally different looking plant, so there’s no mistaking it for other forms. In fact, it’s a different genus all together. It is a loosely formed shrub that gets up to 5 feet tall with cream colored flowers that look like lantana flowers. The plant that I have that was labeled as Italian oregano is a low growing variety that will send out some flower stalks much like Greek Oregano. The flavor is actually stronger in Italian Oregano and doesn’t break down during cooking. There is also a “common oregano” and it is hard to tell them apart, but I find the flavor to be weaker.
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Well, I don’t remember an oregano that was a different species and got so big. My Italian oregano, as well as that in my great grandparents’ garden, really looked like it should. Mine just lacked flavor, especially dried. For me, the dried oregano was more important than the fresh. What grows wild at work is described as ‘common’ oregano, and I would guess that is what it really is. I would not know otherwise. It is not so great dried either, but is very good fresh.