Our ‘Go To’ Herb: Marjoram

Not quite oregano and not quite thyme, marjoram {Origanum majorana} is one of those herbs that sit in the spice cabinet for years – decades even –  just waiting to make an appearance in some stew or stuffing where it can finally shine.

Like its cousin oregano, marjoram is a member of the mint {Lamiaceae} family and native to the Mediterranean, with small grey-green leaves, square stems, and white flowers. But while they’re related, oregano and marjoram are not interchangeable in the kitchen. Where oregano provides a pungent, woodsy flavor, marjoram is a bit milder, with a hint of citrus.

Historically, oregano and marjoram were referred to as the “joy of the mountains” because of their prolific growth and beauty. Ancient Greeks wove marjoram into wreaths for the bride and groom to wear at wedding ceremonies, while Romans looked to it as an aphrodisiac, including it in love spells and in a wine called hippocras. Later, during the Middle Ages, sweet marjoram made its way into beer or gruit.

For health, it was recommended for a range of ailments, including menstruation and urinary tract issues. Nicholas Culpepper considered it “warming and comfortable in cold Diseases of the Head, Stomach, Sinews and other parts, taken inwardly, or out…”

Marjoram For the Body

Marjoram contains several compounds, including methanol, that serve as effective antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal agents, helping to combat colds, flu, and foodborne illness {one reason it’s often a featured herb in sausage}. It increases the production of digestive enzymes to help break down food, and in a tea, it can relieve gas and stomach cramping. Sipping on marjoram tea can also combat a runny nose, coughs, and throat pain.

And, as Culpepper once suggested, marjoram does help with symptoms of the menstrual cycle, with some women looking to the tea to balance mood swings or ease the transition into menopause. Recently, research indicates the herb for polycystic ovarian syndrome {PCOS}, a hormone imbalance that can cause cysts to grow on the ovaries. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Diabetics looked at the effects of marjoram tea on women with PCOS, determining that it improved insulin sensitivity and reduced levels of adrenal androgens {hyperandrogenism is a diagnostic criteria for PCOS}.

Thanks to its high levels of antioxidants, marjoram appears to promote heart health, serving as a vasodilator to lower blood pressure.

Essential oil of marjoram also seems to improve the heart, possibly because of its aromatherapeutic effect. Herbalists look to the oil as a way to boost mood, relieve insomnia, and reduce stress, and this, in turn, can ease hypertension. A 2012 study in Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that inhalation of an essential oil blend that included marjoram “had immediate and continuous effects” on blood pressure, concluding that these relaxation effects might help control hypertension.


Growing Marjoram

This perennial herb is often treated as an annual because of its growing requirements: dry heat, lots of sun, and no freezing temperatures. {Zones 6b-11 can enjoy it as a perennial.} A true Mediterranean herb, it’s very forgiving if you forget to water it from time to time, and it prefers a loamy, well-drained soil.

If you’re starting from seed, sow indoors six weeks before the last frost, or directly in the ground {12 inches apart} in full sun after the last frost has passed. For seedlings, transplant when they have at least two pairs of leaves and be sure to dig a hole large enough to accommodate the root ball. You can propagate marjoram through root ball division.

Harvest up to a third of the plant right after the flower buds appear {but before they open}. Harvest again when the flowers reappear. If you let it go to flower, you can expect visits from the neighborhood butterflies and bees {it makes a great companion plant}.

Keep Marjoram Fresh

You can store fresh marjoram in the fridge; just wrap it in a damp cloth towel. To dry the leaves, simply hang the stems upside down in a cool, moisture-free spot and strip the leaves once dried.

Eating Marjoram

Known as “the sausage herb” in Germany, marjoram makes its way across Europe in fish stews and sauces, salads, and vinegars. Because it’s more delicate than oregano, cooks usually wait until the end to toss it in a recipe. The French might add it to their bouquet garni, a blend that typically includes, chervil, rosemary, tarragon, and thyme, while the Greeks use it to flavor meat.

So often overlooked, marjoram begs to be experimented with. You will find many recipes online, but its light, citrus kick lends itself surprisingly well to bean salads, cheese tortas, and frittatas.

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