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Diggin' It

Ornamental oregano is a delightful perennial plant

Perfect for rock gardens and regions with well-drained soil and winters on the dry side, ornamental oregano is an attractive flowering perennial that's easy to grow.

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They resemble the darker pink, fuzzy-leaved (now rare) wildflower, Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictanunus), famous for what are considered healing, aphrodisiac, and magical properties. Woe to any plant known as a sexual enhancer, but fortunately, this endangered and protected plant once known as “the gift of the gods” is now under cultivation mostly in Greece, the only place where it grows wild -- on hard-to-reach, rocky cliffs.

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There is also some limited cultivation elsewhere, including in the United States. Dittany of Crete is hardy only to Zone 7, while the others mentioned here are all hardy to Zones 4 or 5.

How to grow

These oreganos like full sun and aren’t fussy about soil as long as isn’t too rich and it drains well. They prefer winters on the dry side, as we usually have in the West, and they like to dry out between waterings. Once established, they are drought-tolerant. Mine are not irrigated, and I don’t water them unless conditions are very dry.

While deer and rabbits avoid them, bees love all oreganos, those with flower bracts are favored by bumblebees. Other cultivars with flowers similar to Italian and Greek oreganos (the best culinary types, which have white flowers) are bee and butterfly magnets, including ‘Herrenhausen,’ hardy to -30°F., and the rosier, more floriferous, and compact ‘Rotkugel.’ These can also handle more water and wetter winters.

The common purple-flowered oregano, Origanum vulgare, brought to North America by European immigrants, is considered a highly medicinal plant. It’s also invasive and has naturalized in parts of the US and Mexico. The prettier ornamentals are much better behaved and will provide many years of delight in the garden.

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Jane Shellenberger lives on five acres at 5,000 feet on the plains in Hygiene, Colo., between Boulder and Longmont. She is the publisher and editor of Colorado Gardener, "a thinking gardener's companion." Her book, "Organic Gardener's Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West," will be available in spring 2012. To read more by Jane here at Diggin' It, click here.

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