DIFFERENCES BETWEEN OREGANO AND MARJORAM IN THE UK
Article by David Marks
The question “what is the difference between oregano and marjoram” hides a couple of different questions. First, what are the differences between the two as plants and second, what is the difference between the two for use in cooking? It also prompts the question why are oregano and marjoram so often grouped together as herbs? Those three questions are answered in detail below.
The difference between the two as plants is almost indistinguishable (taste aside) to the amateur gardener. One reason for this is that there are so many varieties of oregano, over 50 have been currently classified. Combine that with the fact that oregano and marjoram cross very easily when grown together (unlikely in the wild but very common in gardens) and you have an almost impossible identification problem.
In technical terms, the difference between marjoram and oregano is based on the shape of the calyx and not the leaves, how hairy they are or the growth habit. That in itself is enough to make most gardeners yawn – what is a calyx you may ask! For those who want to know, a calyx is that little swelling just below the petals of a flower, the petals appear in many cases to be growing from it. In some cases, as is often the case with oregano, the calyx is well developed and looks more interesting than the petals themselves.
So all the articles in books and on the internet which explain the difference between oregano and marjoram as the leaf shape, the amount of hairs on the stems, the growth habit etc are wrong, in actual fact it comes down to the shape and form of the calyx. So, unless you are planning on investigating the shapes of calyx the difference will be hidden to you!
In truth, you have to trust to the experts when buying marjoram or oregano as seeds or plants. Buy them only from reputable seed merchants you trust and in all likelihood you will get what you have asked for. Don’t buy from companies which don’t have a horticultural heritage and only buy from seed merchants you trust.
In practical terms, both oregano and marjoram are perennials but marjoram is a more tender plant compared to oregano. Marjoram may well die if exposed to frosts for any length of time so is often grown anew every year. Both prefer warm climates with free-draining soils although oregano prefers a drier soil compared to marjoram.
NAMING DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MARJORAM AND OREGANO
The Latin name for marjoram is Origanum majorana (often called sweet marjoram), the Latin name for oregano is Origanum vulgare (often called wild marjoram). Pot marjoram is also often grown in the UK and the Latin name for that Origanum onites.
Because of the similarities between the two herbs some seed merchants do not distinguish, or blur the boundaries, between the two and those are companies to avoid. The naming conventions used over the last two hundred years have changed and this is perhaps the key reason why oregano and marjoram are so often confused.
DIFFERENCE IN TASTE BETWEEN MARJORAM AND OREGANO
The difference in taste between the two herbs is, thankfully, something which is easier and clearer to define. Oregano is the strongest tasting of the two with a definite spicy taste. Individual flavours and aromas of oregano include cloves, peppermint and and pine. The flowers have a very similar taste and are totally edible.
Oregano is typically used to flavour food which already has strong flavours. Pizza, pasta and tomato sauces are probably the most famous recipes in which oregano plays an important role but it is widely used in many other Italian, Greek and Mexican dishes including chillies. A teaspoon of dried oregano has only six calories in it and 0.2 grams of fat.
The key flavour in oregano comes from the chemical carvacrol however there are many other chemicals in oregano which give it its distinctive taste. The proportions differ depending not only on the variety being grown but also in the soil and weather conditions. Some people compare the flavour of oregano (and marjoram) to that of thyme and there is more than a little truth in this. The chemical thymol is present to varying degrees in oregano and this is also the key chemical in thyme. If you want to sample a strong tasting oregano then the variety Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum, commonly called Greek oregano, has high levels of carvacol.
Marjoram (sweet marjoram is best for cooking purposes) is a much more mellow tasting herb with a sweeter tasting pine flavour and to a lesser degree citrus and clove flavours. Many cooks prefer marjoram over oregano because it provides a background flavours rather than dominant ones. If you analyse the contents of dried oregano which you buy in the supermarkets it will contain not only oregano but also some marjoram. Taste is a personal matter but often a mixture of both herbs is the ideal flavouring for many recipes.
Sabinene hydrate is the key chemical which flavours marjoram although it shares many of the chemicals present in oregano to varying degrees. A teaspoon of dried marjoram contains 2 calories and 0.04 of fat.
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