Herbs in History: Oregano


Origanum vulgare L.


By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | February 2024

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More than Pizza


Illustration 1: Oregano (Origanum vulgare L.)

In present-day culinary and alimentary life, oregano (Origanum vulgare L.) (Illustration 1) is almost a synonym of pizza or warm focaccias garnished with small leaves of oregano, when it does not evoke Greece, a piece of feta sprinkled with ground oregano leaves and sprayed with olive oil, a few olives and a piece of bread, with a glass of wine. Though suggestive of health benefits, this gustatory and olfactory evocation sharply reduces the merits of oregano, which, in the past, were by no means limited to a pleasant meal. Its history is contradictory, however, with both a clear therapeutic profile early affirmed in history and a subsequent disappearance from the pharmacopoietic arsenal.

Back to the Basics

Some botany to get started. The genus Origanum in the Labiatae family includes several species sometimes—if not often—confused and sometimes also used as adulterants. The species here is Origanum vulgare L. with several subspecies and related species that we will see below. The genus also includes O. dictamnus L. (Dittany), native to Crete, O. majorana L. (Majorana hortensis Moench) (Marjoram), native to Turkey and Cyprus, and O. syriacum L., Bible Hyssop, native to a vertical strip from Turkey down to Saudi Arabia, with several subspecies.

Origanum vulgare L.

Distribution of oregano

Illustration 2: Origanum vulgare L.
Dry specimen from the Goulandris Herbarium, Athens, Greece.

Illustration 3: Distribution of Origanum vulgare L. from Plants of the World Online.

Focusing on O. vulgare L. (Illustration 2), it has a broad distribution (Illustration 3), whereas the species considered to be the true Greek oregano (O. hirtum Link = O. vulgare subsp. hirtum (Link) A. Teracc.) has a narrower distribution, from the Balkans to Crete, to Turkey, with an appearance that fully justifies its subspecies adjective hirtum (hairy) (Illustration 4). Similarly, the species O. onites L. (Illustration 5) has a specific distribution, even narrower than that of O. hirtum: going from West to East in the Mediterranean, it is native to Sicily, Greece and Crete, the East Aegean islands, and Turkey, and has been introduced to Cyprus and Tunisia. Of interest here for historical reasons that will appear below, there is also O. heracleoticum L. (Illustration 6), which, depending on the authors who described it, is now considered a synonym of O. vulgare subsp. vulgare, O. vulgare subsp. hirtum, (Link) A. Teracc., O. vulgare subsp. viridulum (Martrin-Donos) Nyman, or O. onites L.

Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum (Link) A. Teracc.

Origanum onites L. Origanum heracleoticum L.

Illustration 4: Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum (Link) A. Teracc.
Dry specimen from the Goulandris Herbarium, Athens, Greece.

Illustration 5: Origanum onites L.
Dry specimen from the Goulandris Herbarium, Athens, Greece.

Illustration 6: Origanum heracleoticum L.
Dry specimen from the Goulandris Herbarium, Athens, Greece

Pursuing with the basics, the very name of oregano—origanon in ancient Greek and, on this basis, origanum in classical and later Latin up to Linnaeus—has been interpreted in divergent ways through time. As early as Antiquity, when referring to the species called onites in ancient Greek and now identified as O. onites L. that we will discuss below, the Greek poet Nicander (2nd cent. BCE) linked it with donkeys (onos in ancient Greek), claiming that oregano was particularly grazed by donkeys. According to this verbal connection, O. onites was a donkey-ish plant! Philologists more recently speculated that the term origanon is made of two elements—oros meaning mountains and ganos brightness—with the resulting compound name meaning something like the brightness of the mountains also interpreted as the joy of mountains. Without giving too much credit to this interpretation, another philologist considered that origanon is a loan word, that is, a technical term borrowed from the lexicon of another language, probably close to the ancient Greek world.
The ancient mythology, the etymology of the origanon name, the history of medicine, and traditions do not go in that direction. According to mythology, origanon was created by the goddess Aphrodite on Mount Olympus, as a symbol of well-being and joy, and also of perennity through reproduction. The etymology of the very name origanon might reinforce this symbol of reproduction: there is a Greek verb orignao-, meaning to stretch toward. Oregano is an invasive perennial, hermaphrodite, easily growing plant, to which this notion of extending oneself might apply, in addition to being perennial. It is a plant that grows spontaneously, guaranteeing the perennity of the species. Furthermore, from an agricultural and phyto-sociological viewpoint, oregano is a good companion that positively acts on nearby plants, improves their flavor, and attracts bees and butterflies. These different meanings account for the ancient tradition, still occasionally alive nowadays, to crown newlyweds with oregano as a clear symbol of both felicity and reproduction. Oregano is the vitality and continuity of life. This also explains why it was placed on graves in Antiquity, as an expression of the firm belief that life went beyond its terrestrial phase. Finally, origano appears in the earliest written traces of Greek medicine—the writings attributed to Hippocrates (5th / 4th cent. BCE)—with more than forty indications discussed below.
All this attest without any doubt to a deeply-rooted knowledge of the plant—particularly of its propagation—expressed by a name that perfectly translated this characteristic. Mythology built a narrative on this basis and transformed a botanical trait into a tale animated by the goddess who best conveyed this notion of the continuity of life. Nothing of this hints at an introduction from another world as a transplant.

The Hippocratics

In the whole set of writings attributed to Hippocrates—over sixty—oregano can be found as early as the most ancient ones in the 5th century BCE, possibly going back to the so-called School of Cnidus, on the mainland, exactly in front of Kos, the native island of Hippocrates. In the treatise currently identified as On Diseases II dating back to mid-5th century BCE, it is attested in twelve preparations, with ten of them being about affections of the upper and lower respiratory tract. It is administered to treat throat affections, eliminate lung suppuration, and fight respiratory insufficiency. One more indication is about gastric trouble and another about a not otherwise specified cerebral affection. The modes of administration are differentiated: inhalation, gargling, and buccal friction for the throat affections, potions and alimentary regimen for the other conditions.
Around the same time (mid-5th cent. BCE), the treatises Nature of Women and Diseases of Women show that oregano is also used in gynecology with three major indications: amenorrhea, purification of the uterus before conception (and to make conception more likely), and post-partum pain. Oregano is administered as a pessary or in a fumigation in all cases, except in the case of post-partum pain, where it is introduced into the uterus.
Whereas the treatise Barrenness of around the same time prescribes oregano to treat sterility and prevent miscarriage in application, fumigation or potion, the treatise on Internal Affections, which is slightly posterior (400-390 BCE) and supposedly comes from the Hippocratic Island of Kos, returns to the use for the respiratory tract attested in the earliest Hippocratic treatises, including hemoptysis possibly referring to some form of tuberculosis. To that, it adds the treatment of dropsy and hepatitis, in all cases in internal use.
No theoretical explanation is offered for these uses. A hint can be found outside the world of medicine in the literature of that time: in the theatral piece Frogs by the Athenian playwriter Aristophanes (446-386 BCE) played in Athens in 405. To mean sharp staring, Aristophanes created the expression oregano looking (v. 603), which implies a bitter, if not acrid and unpleasant taste applied to stern, sharp eye look. For this metaphor to be understood—and hopefully also appreciated—by the public who attended the performance during the theatral festival of Dionysus, it must have referred to a common idea about the taste of oregano. We can deduce that the defining characteristic of oregano was its organoleptic perception, specifically its taste identified as bitter. Returning to the therapeutic uses of oregano, bitterness was usually considered as opening in ancient medicine, allowing for the elimination of excessive liquid in the body, liquefaction of solid of viscous matters, and catharsis, in all cases by biting and piercing the substance of the body and allowing for the evacuation of unwanted substance.

A Classic

Origanon Heracleoticon

Illustration 7: Origanon Heracleoticon in Manuscript New York, NY, Pierpont Morgan Library, M 652 (Constantinople, 10th cent.), f. 120 verso.

Going down the centuries, the encyclopedia on materia medica compiled in the 1st century CE by Dioscorides, offers an ample treatment on the plant, with four chapters and different species. Interestingly, these four chapters (De materia medica 3.27-30) supposedly related to six different species appear between Lavender (3.26) and Pennyroyal (3.31) followed, in turn, by Dittany (3.32), which indicates that oregano was perceived as a scented, aromatic plant just like Lavender and Pennyroyal. This taxonomy with the organoleptic perception it implies is in sharp contradiction with the one that we detected through Aristophanes’ verse when discussing the Hippocratic uses of oregano. It suggests a different theoretical approach, even though some applications as in Dioscorides are identical to those in the Hippocratic literature.

The species studied by Dioscorides are, in a literal translation or transcription of their Greek name and in the order in which they appear in De materia medica, Heracleotic oregano, Onitis oregano, wild oregano, and goat oregano. Whereas Heracleotic oregano (Illustration 7) unmistakenly refers to a city named Heraclea, we do not know what city is referred to as the name was quite common in Antiquity. For the other names, Onitis—which refers to donkeys as we have seen—has been preserved by Linnaeus, and the goat oregano is not otherwise explained and might be a popular designation based on the alleged predilection of goats for grazing oregano in a way that recalls the supposed etymology created by Nicander reported above. More interesting about this last species, the geographical distribution indicated by Dioscorides (cited here as in Dioscorides’ text): the region of Cilicia—that is current South-East Turkey, close to Syria,—the Islands of Kos and Chios, the city of Smyrna in current Turkey, and Crete. This species might correspond quite exactly to O. onites L., which has indeed such a specific distribution. The other species are considered to be either O. vulgare L. or subspecies of it (including the Heracleotic oregano).

Origanon Onitis

Illustration 8: Origanon Onitis in Manuscript New York, NY, Pierpont Morgan Library, M 652 (Constantinople, 10th cent.), f. 121 recto.

Regarding their uses, Onitis oregano (Illustration 8) and wild oregano are briefly dealt with by Dioscorides. For the former, Dioscorides mentions that it has the same indications as Heracleotic oregano, being less potent, however, and for the latter it recommends the leaves and flowers with wine against venomous bites without further explanation.
For Heracleotic oregano, Dioscorides lists seven major categories of applications, some of which return to the Hippocratic ones, while others are new.
Dioscorides starts with a new one: toxicology. In so doing he connects Heracleotic with wild oregano. Here, however, he includes a therapeutic principle: oregano is warming. For this reason—as he explicitly writes—it is indicated against several cases of envenomation and poisoning that he details as follows: against venomous bites taken internally with wine, against Hemlock and Poppy poisoning taken with milk, and against Colchicum taken with vinegar. The theoretical principle at play here—the warming action—can probably be accounted for by the aromatic nature of the plant and its positive physiological effect, counteracting the deleterious consequences of the venoms and poisons.
Of the other categories of applications, Heracleotic oregano is considered cathartic, emmenagogue and expectorant as in the Hippocratic literature. Similarly, it treats buccal affections.
The new applications are the treatment of spasms and dropsy in internal use through food, dermatology and icterus in baths, otology in injection with milk, and as an emetic.
The goat oregano is qualified as warming, diuretic, and good for the digestive system. It shares the indications of Heracleotic oregano that go back to the time of the Hippocratics, that is, cathartic, emmenagogue, and expectorant, with a new application of this depurative action for the treatment of swellings. It is also considered aperient for patients with low or no appetite and affected by troubles of the digestive system.

Return to the Source

Whereas most of these indications seem to result from a unitary perception of the physiological activity of oregano (warming and, by way of consequence according to the ancient conception of physiology, depurative) and might be expected to have generated a continuous, intensive use, oregano fell into disgrace in the following centuries. For example, it does not appear in the Qanun of medicine by ibn Sina (980-1037), best known as Avicenna, who generally followed Greek medicine with great accuracy.
In the West, oregano can be found, instead, in the Old-English Herbal possibly dating back to the same period as Avicenna. There, however, it is only briefly treated as follows (chapter 124):

This plant … is rather hot by nature and rather strong, and it suppresses coughs, and it also subdues bad blood and rheum, and it is helpful for shortness of breath and liver disease.
For coughs: take this plant … give it to eat. You will be astonished at its usefulness.

The interesting point here is that, in this reduction to a very limited number of indications presented in a minimal way, what has been mostly preserved is the initial use of oregano for the respiratory tract, namely the uses already attested in the Hippocratic writings, which seem to be characteristic of oregano. And, indeed, this is one of the principal indications of oregano reported by the German physician Gerhard Madaus (1890-1942) in his all-embracing compilation of traditional therapeutic applications of natural substances, Textbook of the Biological Healing Methods (Lehrbuch der biologischen Heilmittel) published in 1938.

Origanum in Pietro Andrea Mattioli

Gherardo Cibo, Origano, Tragorigano

Illustration 9: Origanum in Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Commentarii in sex libros Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei de Medica materia iam denuo ab ipso autore recogniti et locis plus mille aucti... Venetiis: Ex Officina Valgrisiana, 1565, p. 702.

Illustration 10: Gherardo Cibo, Origano, Tragorigano. Folio 133 from manuscripts London, British Library Add. Ms. 22332 and Add. Ms. 22333.

In the meantime, the eclipse of oregano was confirmed by the Italian physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1578), translator of, and also commentator on, Dioscorides, De materia medica. Whereas Mattioli generally discusses in great detail Dioscorides’ text and also reports uses of his time, in this case, instead, he limits himself to comment all four chapters in a unique brief section where he only analyzes the botanical identification of the several species described by Dioscorides. Regarding their therapeutic uses, he does not even talk about them and just translates into Latin the brief Greek chapter on them by Galen (129-after [?] 216 CE) in a remarkable silence. He nevertheless provided illustrations of all four species. One of them, Tragoriganos (Illustration 9), was reinterpreted by the Italian botanist and botanical illustrator Gherardo Cibo (1512-1600) in a delicate naturalistic scene (Illustration 10) that expresses the freshness of aromatic plants rather than the bitter and stern oregano looking of Aristophanes!

Scientific Articles
Kosakowska, O. et al. 2021. Antioxidant and Antibacterial Activity of Essential Oils and Hydroethanolic Extracts of Greek oregano (Ovulgare L. subsp. hirtum (Link) Ietswaart) and Common oregano (Ovulgare L. subsp. vulgare). Molecules 26(4) (2021), 988. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules26040988
Węglarz, Z. et al. 2020. The Quality of Greek oregano (Ovulgare L. Subsp. hirtum (Link) Ietswaart) and Common oregano (Ovulgare L. Subsp. vulgare) Cultivated in the Temperate Climate of Central Europe. Foods 9(11) (2020), 1671.
Król, B. et al. 2019. Date of harvesting affects yields and quality of Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum (Link) Ietswaart. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 99(12) (2019), pp. 5432–5443.
Barata, A.M., A. Asdal, E. Lipman (2010). Report of a Working Group on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants. Fourth Meeting, 29 September-1 October 2009, Kusadasi, Turkey. Kusadasi: European Cooperative Programme for Plant Genetic Resources, 2010. ISBN: 978-92-9043-861-8
Padulosi S., (ed.) (1997). oregano. Proceedings of the IPGRI International Workshop on oregano 8-12 May 1996 CIHEAM, Valenzano, Bari, Italy. Promoting the Conservation and Use of Underutilized and Neglected Crops 14 (1997), 176 pp.
On Adulteration
Lievens, A. et al. (2023). Detection and Quantification of Botanical Impurities in Commercial oregano (Origanum vulgare) Using Metabarcoding and Digital PC., Foods 12(16) (2023), 2998.
Fiorani, L. et al. (2023). Laser Sensing and Chemometric Analysis for Rapid Detection of oregano Fraud. Sensors 23(15) (2023), 6800.
Creydt, M. et al. (2023). Food Fingerprinting: LC-ESI-IM-QTOF-Based Identification of Blumeatin as a New Marker Metabolite for the Detection of Origanum majorana Admixtures to O. onites/vulgareMetabolites 13(5) (2023), 673.
Damiani, T., N. Dreolin, S. Stead, C. Dall'Asta (2021). Critical evaluation of ambient mass spectrometry coupled with chemometrics for the early detection of adulteration scenarios in Origanum vulgare L. Talanta 227(2021), 122116.
Black, C. et al. (2016). A comprehensive strategy to detect the fraudulent adulteration of herbs: The oregano approach. Food chemistry 210 (2016), pp. 551–557. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2016.05.004
Oregano essential oil medical applications
Di Liberto, D. et al. (2023). Cytotoxic Effect Induced by Sicilian oregano Essential Oil in Human Breast Cancer Cells. Cells 12(23) (2023), 2733.
Bora, L. et al. (2023). Stability Profile and Clinical Evaluation of an Innovative Hydrogel Containing Polymeric Micelles as Drug Delivery Systems with oregano Essential Oil against Fibroepithelial Polyps. Pharmaceuticals, 16(7) (2023), 980.
Semenzato, G. et al. (2023). Genomic, Molecular, and Phenotypic Characterization of Arthrobacter sp. OVS8, an Endophytic Bacterium Isolated from and Contributing to the Bioactive Compound Content of the Essential Oil of the Medicinal Plant Origanum vulgare L. International journal of molecular sciences 24(5) (2023), 4845. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms24054845
Soltani, S., A. Shakeri, M. Iranshahi, M. Boozari, M. (2021). A Review of the Phytochemistry and Antimicrobial Properties of Origanum vulgare L. and Subspecies. Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research 20(2) (2021), pp. 268–285. https://doi.org/10.22037/ijpr.2020.113874.14539
Lombrea, A. et al. (2020). A Recent Insight Regarding the Phytochemistry and Bioactivity of Origanum vulgare L. Essential Oil. International Journal of Molecular Sciences 21(24) (2020), 9653.
Leyva-López, N. et al. (2017). Essential Oils of oregano: Biological Activity beyond Their Antimicrobial Properties. Molecules 22(6) (2017), 989.
De Mastro G. et al. (2017). Essential oil diversity of Origanum vulgare L. populations from Southern Italy. Food Chemistry 235 (15 November 2017), pp. 1-6.
Ortega-Ramirez, L.-A. et al. (2016). oregano (Origanum spp.), in Oils, Essential Oils in Food Preservation, Flavor and Safety, 2016, pp. 625-631.
Mincheva, I., E. Kozuharova, L. Rastrelli  (2016). Ethnobotany and Exploitation Potential of Oreganum [sic] vulgare L. in the Rhodopes, Bulgaria. Pharmacology OnLine 3 (2016), pp. 168-173. https://pharmacologyonline.silae.it/files/archives/2016/vol3/PhOL_2016_3_A025_29_Mincheva.pdf
Zukauska I., Ethnobotanical evaluation of oregano (Origanum vulgare) in Latvia. Planta Medica 81 (2015), PW_28.
Yu-ShanGuo X.-L. et al(2014). Phenolic compounds from Origanum vulgare and their antioxidant and antiviral activities. Food Chemistry 152 (1 June 2014), pp. 300-306.
Lukas B., C. Schmiderer, J. Novak (2015). Essential oil diversity of European Origanum vulgare L. (Lamiaceae). Phytochemistry 119 (November 2015), pp. 32-40.
Betancourt L. et al. (2014). Effect of Origanum chemotypes on broiler intestinal bacteria. Poultry Science 93(10) (October 2014), pp. 2526–2535.
De Martino L. et al. (2009). Chemical Composition and Antimicrobial Activity of the Essential Oils from Three Chemotypes of Origanum vulgare L. ssp. hirtum (Link) Ietswaart Growing Wild in Campania (Southern Italy). Molecules 14(8) (2009), pp. 2735-2746.
Jerković I., J. Mastelić, M. Miloš (2001). The impact of both the season of collection and drying on the volatile constituents of Origanum vulgare L. ssp. hirtum grown wild in Croatia. Food Science + Technology 36(6) (August 2001), pp. 649-654.
On Diabetes
Gutiérrez-Grijalva, E. P. et al. (2022). oregano as a potential source of antidiabetic agents. Journal of Food Biochemistry 46(12) (2022), e14388.
Allyson M. Bower A.M. et al. (2014). Bioactive Compounds from Culinary Herbs Inhibit a Molecular Target for Type 2 Diabetes Management, Dipeptidyl Peptidase IV. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 62 (26) (2014), pp. 6147-6158.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/jf500639

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