Ornamental oreganos

MOST OF US ENJOY growing plants that remind us of people and places that are important to us. For me, oreganos are exceptionally evocative; their piquant aromas recall my olive-picking days in Italy, the searing heat of the Greek countryside, the spicy fragrance of the maquis of southern France. When I first began growing them in my garden, they tasted and smelled disappointingly bland, lacking the tang of the wild herbs in their native habitat. In an attempt to recapture those memorable scents and flavors, I swapped for or bought oreganos of every kind and description. I ended up with a sizable collection, though I eventually had to acknowledge that Mediterranean herbs grown in the cool maritime Northwest will never have the snap of their ancestors. Even so, the experience taught me new respect for this versatile and variable family. It also introduced me to a swarm of ornamental oreganos, little-known beauties outstanding both for appearance and perseverance. My garden now holds more varieties than ever, grown not as edible accents but as hardy perennials.

Some border oreganos offer striking foliage all season long, and many others provide a steady stream of flowers from mid or late summer into autumn. Though uniformly long lasting, the flowers may be short and widely lipped, as in wild oregano (Origanum vulgare), or narrowly tubular and airily clustered, as in O. laevigatum. In smaller oreganos the flowers may be tucked between overlapping and highly ornamental bracts, whether tiny and brilliantly colored, as in dittany of Crete (O. dictamnus), or elongated into the singing pink trumpets of O. amanum. Whatever their shape, oregano blossoms are held on square stems decked with leaves in opposite pairs. These are often rounded or elliptical, and in some cases are at least as attractive as the blossoms. Like their relatives the thymes and mints, the oreganos have square stems that proclaim them members of the family Lamiaceae. These popular herbs, valued for their aromatic essential oils (carvacrol and thymol in the case of oregano), share a taste for dry soils with quick drainage and plenty of sunshine. Read more