Lately, more and more people have begun to understand just how limited — in both variety and nutritional value — our “modern” diets hove become. This realization has sparked a new and widespread interest in the culinary and therapeutic uses of herbs . . . those plants which — although not well known today — were, just one short generation ago, honored “guests” on the dinner tables and in the medicine chests of our grandparents’ homes. In this regular feature, MOTHER EARTH NEWS will examine the availability, cultivation, and benefits of our “forgotten” vegetable foods and remedies . . . and – we hope – help prevent the loss of still another bit of ancestral lore.
An herb garden favorite, sweet or knotted marjoram (Origanum majorana or Majorana hortensis) has long been known as a symbol of youth, beauty, and happiness. The Greeks — who gave the plant the name Origanum, meaning “joy of the mountains” — crowned newlyweds with marjoram to wish the couple enduring happiness, and laid wreaths of the herb on graves to insure the contentment of the dead.
Because of its balsamic fragrance, marjoram was used for centuries as a strewing herb to freshen the air in homes . . . and was often tucked into aromatic “tussle-mussie” nosegays where, in the Victorian language of flowers, it meant blushes. (Dried and mixed with lavender, marjoram is still a principal ingredient of potpourri.) Cuttings were once used to make scented wash water, and fine furniture was scoured with the herb’s fragrant juices. The plant’s somewhat grayish greenery was prized in ornamental knot gardens of the Tudor period, where it could easily be trained into a bushy shape.
Marjoram also has many me dicinal uses. Some say that the oil, which solidifies after extraction, will promote hair growth when rubbed onto the scalp. More certain is its efficacy in the form of hot fomentations (covered compresses made with strong tea) applied to aching muscles, sprains, bruises, swellings, varicose veins, and rheumatic joints. Furthermore, a tisane — which is made of a half ounce of the leaves, steeped in one pint of boiled water — has been prescribed to soothe upset stomachs, colic, headaches, cramps, nausea . . . and that very unpleasant amalgamation of conditions, seasickness.
Of course, marjoram is most familiar to us today as a culinary herb. (Indeed, it makes an excellent potted plant for the kitchen window.) By itself, it enhances the flavor of various meats and vegetables, such as chicken, lamb, pork, liver, fish, carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, and potatoes. In addition, its ability to cut greasiness makes i particularly effective in sausage, and in stuffings for duck and goose.
Paired with sweet basil, Origanum improves tomato and egg dishes, and — along with parsley, thyme, and bay leaf — it’s an important ingredient of bouquet garnish, a combination of herbs that are tied together and simmered in soups, stews, or sauce to impart rich flavor.
Native to Portugal, marjoram is a shrubby perennial that must be treated as an annual in our country. The plant is rather dainty in appearance and grows about 10 to 16 inches high, wit small, somewhat fuzzy, oblong leaves. Around June or July, the leaves form small knots at the end of each stem (hence, the common name “knotted marjoram”), from which the tiny white or lavender flowers emerge. The aroma of the leaves-sweet and a bit camphor like-is most apparent in the flowering tips of the young plants.
Propagation is by seed — they’re small, brown, and nutlike, and take approximately eight days to germinate — or by root cuttings (such sections t are best taken in July or August with a “heel” of old wood, then rooted, wintered under glass, and set out the following spring). The plants prefer a well drained, rather sweet soil that is richly supplied with thoroughly composted manure and kept weed-free.
Harvest the leaves before the herb flowers, when the green knots appear on the stem tips. Then — after the flowers have bloomed — cut the whole plant back to an inch in height for a second growth, and harvest it again in the fall. Dry the leaves on a screen . . . in a shaded spot that is warm but not humid.
Marjoram seed is readily available in outlets carrying herb seeds or may be obtained as a plant from many local nurseries.