The Gardener's Apprentice

Ornamental Oregano

ORNAMENTAL OREGANO

            I am always looking for non-fussy ground covers that stomp weeds and look good doing it.  On a garden center run a few years ago I happened upon ornamental oregano, something I had read about but never tried.  The cultivar was ‘Kent Beauty’ and it was in bloom, with pinkish flowerheads that reminded me of hops.  Invoking my usual careful, deliberative process, I snapped up the quart container and made for the cash register.

The plant went right into my front strip garden, which was created after my attempts to grow grass in the area became a source of perpetual aggravation.  The strip needed all the ground cover it could get and I figured it was a good place to experiment with something new.  The little plant, only about six inches high, went into the sunny end, near the front of the bed.

When ‘Kent Beauty’ is in bloom, as mine was when it was purchased and installed, it is hard to notice the leaves, which are small, rounded and silvery.  If you rub them, they exude the familiar oregano scent, but it is not as pronounced as the fragrance that emanates from the bottle of dried culinary oregano that every one of us has on the kitchen shelf.   The kitchen variety oregano, which has been used as a medicinal and culinary herb for centuries, is Origanum vulgare, native to the Old World, from Europe to Central Asia.  ‘Kent Beauty’ is a hybrid, the offspring of a cross between Origanum rotundifolium or round-leafed oregano and Origanum scabrum.

‘Kent Beauty’ has now survived two winters, one harsh and the other gentle, not to mention being stepped on and rifled by passing dogs.  It has spread from its original six inch diameter to cover over a square foot and blossoms, which are actually groups of colored leaves or bracts, completely cover the plant.  The bees and other pollinators absolutely adore it, making fools of themselves in an effort to get close to the bracts.  Passers-by ask about it all the time.

Despite the flowers’ resemblance to hops, ornamental oregano is a member of the prodigious mint family.  Hops, on the other hand, are part of the Cannabaceae family, which is also home to marijuana.  Culinary oregano behaves like a typical mint, expanding rapidly and seeding itself all over the place.  It has become naturalized in some parts of the United States.  ‘Kent Beauty’ and other ornamental varieties are much better mannered and while they will spread out in the garden, you will not have to pluck them out of cracks in your sidewalk or driveway.

‘Kent Beauty’, which is so laudable that it won the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit, was the first ornamental oregano to hit the American commercial market, but it is not the only one.  ‘Amethyst Falls’, not to be confused with a wisteria of the same name, behaves in much the same way as ‘Kent Beauty’, but features purple and green “flowerheads” that cascade gracefully.

Plant hybridizing is big business in Germany and the breeders there could not resist oregano.  Two German cultivars, ‘Herrenhausen’ and ‘Rosenkuppel’, have rosy flowerheads and the same spreading ways as other ornamental varieties.  The flowers of the German hybrids, though lush, fragrant and beautiful, look less like hops than ‘Kent Beauty’, ‘Amethyst Falls’ or the dainty ‘Bristol Cross’, which has pink and green bracts.

The virtues of ornamental oregano are numerous.  They can be grow in containers, window boxes or rock gardens and are perfect for xeric or dry landscapes.  Deer and other varmints do not eat them, so it may be worthwhile to plant a few in areas where you also grow spring flowering bulbs.  The bracts or flowerheads look wonderful in arrangements and varieties like ‘Kent Beauty’ make excellent dried flowers as well.  If you have an herb garden, try both culinary oregano and one of the ornamental varieties.  Each will reward your investment in its own way.

Large garden centers and nurseries sometimes carry ornamental oreganos, either in the perennial or herb sections.  Bluestone Perennials is a good source.  They are at 7211 Middle Ridge Rd., Madison, Ohio  44057, (800) 852-5243; www.bluestoneperennials.com.  Free catalog.    Forestfarm also has an excellent selection.  Find them at 990 Tetherow Road, Williams, Oregon 97544, (541) 846-7269; www.forestfarm.com. Catalog $5.00

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