What’s the difference between marjoram and oregano? Depends on who you ask. Many botanists believe they are the same but a chef will tell you the difference is huge. Oregano was long considered “wild marjoram” but the plants do not look particularly similar. To confuse matters further, marjoram is a member of the mint family and considered the twin of thyme.
Marjoram has a more mild, sweet flavor than oregano with perhaps a hint of balsam. It is said to be “the” meat herb but compliments all foods except sweets. Common to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods, marjoram is grown domestically and imported mostly from Egypt.
Egyptians used marjoram, along with other fragrant spices, to appease the gods in the embalming process. Hippocrates included marjoram in the many medical treatises he wrote and it was cultivated in the Roman Empire. Symbolizing happiness, when marjoram is found growing on a grave, it is said that the departed will enjoy a pleasant afterlife. Newly married couples were crowned by the ancient greeks with garlands of sweet marjoram. Because of its association with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, the ancient herb was believed to promise wedded bliss.
Marjoram, Origanum marjorana, is easy to grow from seed as long as you wait to plant until after all danger of frost has passed. It thrives with full sun and somewhat dry conditions, growing to a compact 8 or 10-inches. Mid-season, tiny white or pink clumps of flowers will form at the tips of the marjoram plant. To extend the life of the plant and encourage more leaf production, remove these buds as they form.
Although classified as a perennial, marjoram is sensitive to cold weather and will wither when exposed to frost. To bring it indoors for the winter, take clippings to root in water. In the warmest of climates, you may get another round of growth by cutting the plant back hard in the fall.
The delicate floral aroma of marjoram lends itself well to soaps, pomanders and herbal wreaths. Ornamental varieties such as the variegated or creeping types make attractive additions to the garden but are less flavorful than true sweet marjoram.
Marjoram really shines in the kitchen. Dried, the herb holds that lovely fragrance and its flavor much better than other herbs do when dried. Marjoram combines well with other seasonings and will enhance so many different dishes.
Consider it a natural for meat dishes but don't hesitate to use marjoram to season vegetables served cooked or raw, fish and chicken or dishes with eggs and/or cheese. It is especially good along with other herbs in beef stew.