Two species of marjoram now grown for culinary purposes
(several others were formerly popular) are members of the Labiatae or
mint family--pot or perennial marjoram (Origanum vulgare, Linn.) and
sweet or annual (O. Marjorana). Really, both plants are perennials,
but sweet marjoram, because of its liability to be killed by frost, is
so commonly cultivated in cold countries as an annual that it has
acquired this name, wh
ch readily distinguishes it from its hardy
relative. Perennial marjoram is a native of Europe, but has become
naturalized in many cool and even cold temperate climates. It is often
found wild in the Atlantic states in the borders of woods.
The general name origanum, meaning delight of the mountain, is derived
from two Greek words, oros, mountain; and ganos, joy, some of the
species being found commonly upon mountain sides. Under cultivation it
has developed a few varieties the most popular of which are a variegated
form used for ornamental purposes, and a dwarf variety noted for its
ability to come true to seed. Both varieties are used in cookery. The
perennial species seems to have had the longer association with
civilization; at least it is the one identified in the writings of
Pliny, Albertus Magnus and the English herbalists of the middle ages.
Annual marjoram is thought to be the species considered sacred in India
to Vishnu and Siva.
Description.--Perennial marjoram rises even 2 feet high, in branchy
clumps, bears numerous short-stemmed, ovate leaves about 1 inch long,
and terminal clusters or short spikes of little, pale lilac or pink
blossoms and purple bracts. The oval, brown seeds are very minute. They
are, however, heavy for their size, since a quart of them weighs about
24 ounces. I am told that an ounce contains more than 340,000, and would
rather believe than be forced to prove it.
Annual marjoram is much more erect, more bush-like, has smaller,
narrower leaves, whiter flowers, green bracts and larger, but lighter
seeds--only 113,000 to the ounce and only 20 ounces to the quart!
Cultivation.--Perennial marjoram when once established may be readily
propagated by cuttings, division or layers, but it is so easy to grow
from seed that this method is usually employed. There is little danger
of its becoming a weed, because the seedlings are easily destroyed while
small. The seed should be sown during March or April in flats or beds
that can be protected from rain. It is merely dusted on the surface, the
soil being pressed down slightly with a board or a brick. Until the
seedlings appear, the bed should be shaded to check evaporation. When
the plants are 2 or 3 inches tall they may be transplanted to the places
where they are to remain, as they are not so easy to transplant as
lettuce and geraniums. The work should be done while the plants are very
small, and larger numbers should be set than will ultimately be allowed
to grow. I have had no difficulty in transplanting, but some people who
have had prefer to sow the seed where the plants are to stand.
If to be used for edging, the dwarf plants may be set 3 or 6 inches
apart; the larger kinds require a foot or 15 inches in which to develop.
In field cultivation the greater distance is the more desirable. From
the very start the plants must be kept free from weeds and the soil
loose and open. Handwork is essential until they become established. The
plants will last for years.
Annual marjoram is managed in the same kind of way as to seeding and
cultivation; but as the plant is tender, fresh sowings must be made
annually. To be sure, plants may be taken up in the fall and used for
making cuttings or layers towards spring for the following seasons beds.
As annual marjoram is somewhat smaller than the perennial kind (except
the dwarf perennial variety), the distances may be somewhat less, say 9
or 10 inches. Annual marjoram is a quick-growing plant--so quick, in
fact, that leaves may be secured within six or eight weeks of sowing.
The flowers appear in 10 to 12 weeks, and the seed ripens soon after.
When it is desired to cure the leaves for winter use, the stems should
be cut just as the flowers begin to appear, and dried in the usual
manner. (See page 25.) If seed is wanted, they should be cut soon after
the flowers fall or even before all have fallen--when the scales around
the seeds begin to look as if drying. The cut stems must be dried on
sheets of very fine weave, to prevent loss of seed. When the leaves are
thoroughly dry they must be thrashed and rubbed before being placed in
sieves, first of coarse, and then of finer mesh.
Uses.--The leaves and the flower and tender stem tips of both species
have a pleasant odor, and are used for seasoning soups, stews, dressings
and sauces. They are specially favored in France and Italy, but are
popular also in England and America. In France marjoram is cultivated
commercially for its oil, a thin, light yellow or greenish liquid, with
the concentrated odor of marjoram and peppermint. It has a warm, and
slightly bitter taste. About 200 pounds of stems and leaves are needed
to get a pound of oil. Some distillation is done in England, where 70
pounds of the plant yield about one ounce of oil. This oil is used for
perfuming toilet articles, especially soap, but is perhaps less popular
than the essential oil of thyme.