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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Herb of the Week -- Cuban Oregano

This weeks Herb of the Week is Plectranthus amboinicus, commonly known as Cuban Oregano. I have talked about this before, but herb names are funny sometimes. Cuban Oregano is neither Cuban, nor Oregano. It is actually of Middle Eastern Origin, most likely from India, and although it, like most culinary herbs, including Oregano,is a member of the Lamiaceae or Mint family, it is actually more closely related to Coleus than is is Oregano.

Coleus, of course, is a plant grown for it's attractive leaves, and Cuban Oregano, in many gardens is grown for its appearance more than its use. But it is a flavorful herb, used in cooking quite a bit in the Carribean, Java, India and Malaysia.

Also known as Spanish thyme, Indian Borage, Mexican thyme, Mexican mint, Húng chanh (Vietnam)and Orégano Brujo (Puerto Rico), in Cuba, interestingly enough, it is known as French Oregano.

A succulent perennial herb it can reach up 10 20 inches in height with fleshy leaves in opposite pairs. It occasionally produces pale violet flowers.

This is a sprawling herb that will take up a lot of room indoors, but is also a tender herb, very sensitive to the cold, so if you live in an area where you have any frost, it will not do well outside.

For this reason, many people tend to grow it in a container, letting it grow up throughout the warm months, but cutting it way back to take indoors in the winter.

Unlike most herbs, Cuban Oregano requires a heavier soil, (one with peat or other organic matter in it, to help hold the moisture) and should not be allowed to dry completely before watering.

I was introduced to this herb through the Michigan Master Gardeners Herb Garden at the Michigan State University County Extension office in MaComb County. They had it growing in their garden, and at the end of the season, they graciously allowed me to cut some to experiment with. I also attempted to root some cuttings, and so far three of the four that I rooted are alive, one of them doing quite well. I hope it survives the winter so I can plant it outdoors when it gets warm.

Available in both plain and variegated varieties, this herb is very aromatic, much like Rosemary, and will give off a strong smell after a rainstorm, or on a warm sunny humid day.

Brushing the leaves with your fingers is enough to release some of the oils, leaving your fingers smelling faintly like a cross between thyme, oregano and rosemary, with just a hint of citrus.

Research shows it is most effectively grown from cuttings and does not need rooting hormone. It grows best between 65-75 degrees, growth will slow significantly below 60 and may, while not truly bolting, tend to get a bit leggy or spindly at temperatures much higher than 80. Planting in full sunlight, rather than partial shade, tends to help this problem.

Although not grown for its flowers, occasionally it will produce spikes of a small purple flower in the fall.

Harvesting the plant is very easy, as the leaves are brittle and will fall off in your hand if you handle the stems too roughly, so simply holding a tray under the stems and running your fingers down them will quickly strip the leaves.

Of course, judicious pruning will allow you to harvest the plant and still have an attractive plant growing. Never harvest more than 2/3 of any plant at one time.

Culinary uses for Cuban Oregano seem to be mainly with meat of stuffing although it may be used other ways as well. It holds it's flavor a little better under heat than some herbs, and therefore is good for stuffing, especially strong flavored meats such as wild game.

It is sometimes used as a substitute for Oregano, and if you find a food that is labeled "Oregano Flavored" odds are that this is the plant that was used.
When cooking with it, it should be used sparingly so as not to overpower the flavor of the meat/fish.

It is used for Meat in fish in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean. Eaten in Salads in the Caribbean, cooked with fish, mutton and sour soup in Asia, eaten raw with bread and butter, fried in batter, or used as a flavoring for beer and wine in India and is the principle flavoring ingredient in Cuban Black Bean Soup.

Medicinally, It is said to be very good for coughs and sore throats, the most effective way to administer it simply by chewing a leaf.Inhaling the vapor from crushed leaves is said to help clear blocked nasal passages, while a paste made from crushed leaves is said to help burns, sores, insect bites and stings, and skin conditions such as eczema.

Tea made from the leaves is used in various parts of the world for treating: Bronchitis, Asthma, Colds, flues, other viral conditions, Indigestion, flatulence, stomach cramps, Insomnia, and Pain associated with headaches.

Lest you think this is the miracle drug herb, remember, I am not in the business of giving medical advice, I cant vouch for the things I find in my research, there have been very few clinical studies done on the medicinal properties of most herbs, and one should always consult a physician before attempting to treat any serious medical condition.

Although I couldn't find a lot of history on magic and folklore associated with this plant, there is evidence that some Brazilian people and especially African Immigrants to Brazil used it in rituals. It was burned as an offering and to consecrate temples, and also widely used in protection and cleansing magic.

Some folklore suggests it as a sign that fairies have blessed a place. Contemporary pagan magic often uses it as a smudging agent to purify a space before the undertaking of a spell. Worn as a sachet, it is said to increase psychic sensitivity.


  1. Wow I love the looks of this one. Almost seems like it would look nice in my sedum garden (if I ever get it done). Great and informative post.
    Thanks for the compliment on my pics today. I feel like they aren't as good since I upgraded to a bigger camera. But I'm pretty sure the problem is probably with me and not the camera. LOL

  2. I recently bought "Puerto Rico" oregano and it looks similar to this plant. Mine has lighter green leaves with white lines. I am hoping it will be a fun addition to my herb garden. Thanks for all the info. Maybe if nothing else I can put a planter at my front door for the fairies to bless my house with each visitor.

    1. The striped version is variegated cuban oregano

  3. thank you for the info..I grew up with my grandma growing this and cooking with it but couldn't find it here in the states LOL and when I would ask for hairy oregano, people would look at me funny :)

  4. Excellent in scrambled eggs or omlettes

  5. I primarily grow Cuban Oregano and Genovese Basil in my window boxes and make a magnificent pesto using equal parts...great with Pasta or for grilling chicken, meat or seafood.

  6. I love the smell and pick the fresh leaves from window pots (root starts work well) for aromatherapy. They are calming and invigorating at the same time. This herb does not air dry well, which is disappointing.

    1. I freeze dry it ! I put it in the freezer and then it crumbles when frozen. Often I will simply take a fresh leaf, cut it into small pieces and throw into whatever i am cooking !

  7. I have been searching for an image of a type of oregano to treat my dry cough and I could not find the exact picture of what I am looking for until I finally, found this article that goes with the picture.I grew up in Asia and this type Cuban Oregano is what the people use to treat cough which is available in the countryside. We squeeze the juice from 2 to 3 leaves, then add calamondin juice and drink the mixture.It is said to treat cough.

  8. Our Cuban oregano has worked wonders for keeping critters and bugs out of our vegetable garden! It is delicious in salsas, enchiladas, soups, and all sorts of other ethnic culinary dishes!

  9. Just got a piece from a friend and it's growing well in this trinidad climate... glad to know it has so many uses

  10. This is great stuff I got a couple clippings and now I have it all over the place and I use it and just about anything I cook.

    1. I have so much of this beautiful plant (variegated) I dont know what to do with it - hence - reading this blog.... going to transplant new stuff and give some away!!!!