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Oregano, Origanum vulage - An ancient healing plant

November 2021, posted by Emma

Can you imagine pizza without a pinch of oregano? Or a rich pasta sauce, or a hearty winter stew? Oregano has been part of Europe’s culinary and medicinal history since ancient times. My favorite example has to be its inclusion in Apicius, a famed cookbook of Imperial Rome, where oregano is listed as an ingredient to enhance the flavour and digestive qualities of barley broth (Bown, 2001).

Folklore

Its early popularity appears to have been widely endorsed by monks who cultivated the herb in monastic gardens, whilst regular folk scattered it on earthen floors of their homes. There are records of the herb being added to 16th century nosegays, worn to ward off the bubonic plagues which raged across Europe. Jump a few centuries and doctors were still prescribing this humble herb as a general health tonic in the 1800s (Hildebrand). Oregano is still used in herbal medicine and aromatherapy today, however it provides us with an excellent example of why you should always check the botanical names on your essential oil bottles, as this little herb is the source of much naming confusion.

Botanical Identification

This quote from a modern day herbal is a good place to start,
“It seems to be true to say that all marjorams are oreganos, but not all oreganos are marjorams” (Hildebrand, p.144). Partly this seems to have occurred because the same common name is often given to different plants (Price and Price, 2007) and sometimes botanical names are partly shared too. Take Origanum marjorana for example, aromatherapy’s much-loved Sweet Marjoram. It is certainly a relative of oregano, but marjoram has a very different aroma, chemistry, therapeutics and safety concerns to Oregano. Price and Price go on to cite the authors Skoula and Harborne (2002), who explain that the name ‘oregano’ is shared by 43 different species and 18 hybrids which collectively belong to five different plant families. So it is hardly surprising that confusion abounds! Unless we are careful, it is easy to inadvertently mis-use the various Oreganos and related oils on the aromatherapy market. This is a great pity, because they all have distinct personalities and useful therapeutic applications. We will save Sweet Marjoram for a future newsletter, right now our focus is fully on the aromatic power-house which is Oregano.

Even once you have established that your bottle definitely contains Oregano essential oil, further checks are needed. For instance, are you holding a bottle of Origanum vulgare (produced in various countries), Moroccan oregano (Origanum compactum) or Spanish oregano (Thymbra capitata)? The plant chemistry and therefore the therapeutic applications and safety issues of each can vary widely, including between regions where the same variety is grown. Oreganos in general though are typically high in phenols. Carvacrol is often predominant and usually appears alongside much lower levels of thymol. Tisserand (2014) cites typical levels of carvacrol for O-vulgare as ranging between 61 - 83%, with thymol putting in an appearance of just under 4.5%. All this indicates that there are some safety cautions to be aware of, but first let’s look at the therapeutic possibilities of this aromatic Golliath.

The Essential OIl

The essential oil, which is distilled from dried aerial parts of this flowering herb (Battaglia, 2003), has a hot, dry and strong-herbaceous aroma. Inhaling it on a winter’s day feels like the perfect antidote to chilly weather. This gives a clue to one of its indicated uses, namely easing aches and pains which are inherent with rheumatoid arthritis and often flare-up in cold, damp weather. Inhale its scent and you will almost certainly also detect a powerful camphoraceous note, so you may not be surprised to learn that oregano is strongly recommended for treating respiratory conditions such as coughs, colds and flu. It can help support the immune system (LabAroma, 2021) and provide a welcome energy boost when tiredness hits.

Oregano’s pain-relieving actions mean that, in small amounts, it can help relieve headaches too. Aromatherapy author Julia Lawless also recommends oregano for relieving insect bites and stings (1995), though don’t forget to add it to a base product first.

Traditionally, oregano the herb has long been used to treat digestive complaints. Whereas we would never recommend taking the essential oil internally, adding a few drops to a tummy-rub blend (to be applied externally) can be a lovely way to look after a gastro-intestinal tract which is struggling with wind, indigestion or similar complaints.

Safety Cautions

Before you get jiggy with oregano though it is important to take note of some important safety cautions. The phenols which give it its strength, which include a good antibacterial action (Bowles, 2003), are also famed for their skin irritant capacity. Due to its carvacrol and thymol levels Oregano is also a strong mucous membrane irritant - think nose and mouth. This means that care must be taken when inhaling it. Oregano essential oil is totally contraindicated when pregnant or breastfeeding (including via inhalation), for toxicity reasons. Apply extreme caution if using with young children, or on diseased, broken or hypersensitive skin (there are lots of other excellent essential and/or base oils you can use in these cases instead). Tisserand (2014) recommends a sensible 1.1% maximum when applying oregano to the skin. By repeating his recommendation here we are making it clear that we do not advise applying it undiluted! Also be aware that oregano may interfere with some medication regimes, particularly blood thinners, so check with your medical practitioner or a suitably qualified aromatherapist if this applies to you.

Blend Suggestions

Oregano is one of those special essential oils which, on a day-to-today basis, may sit quietly in your oil box. However when the clinical need is acute (and the skin is healthy) it packs a powerful therapeutic punch, thus earning a rightful place in every aromatherapist’s toolkit. The Greek name oregano loosely means ‘joy of the mountains’ (Bown, 2001). As we head towards the depths of winter, why not pick up a bottle and gently inhale the warmth and joy that oregano brings.

Love Your Joints
If the change of seasons triggers achy joints, try gently applying this blend into affected areas twice daily. The total amount of essential oils are given make-up 2% of the total blend.

50ml bottle - washed and sterilised
15mls each of Arnica, Calendula and St John’s Wort macerated oils
5mls of avocado (or your favourite skin nourishing base oil)
Add essential oils:-
20 drops of Eucalyptus dives
17 drops German Chamomile (Matricaria chamomila)
5 drops Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
5 drops Blue Tansy (Tanacetum annum)
3 drops Lavender, high altitude (Lavandula angustifolia)

Emma Charlton
November 2021

REFERENCES
● Battaglia S (2003) The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy (second edition), Brisbane: The International Centre of Holistic Aromatherapy
● Bowles EJ (2003) The Chemistry of Aromatherapeutic Oils (3rd edition), Crows Nest Australia: Allen & Unwin
● Bown D (2001) Herbal The Essential Guide to Herbs for Living, London: Barnes & Noble Books
● Dropsmith (2021), Oregano profiles, accessed 01/11/21, available from https://app.dropsmith.com/oils?search=oregano
● Hilderbrand C (2016) Herbarium, London: Thames & Hudson
● LabAroma(2021), Oregano oil (profiles), available from https://app.labaroma.com/advanced-search/oregano, accessed 01/11/21
● Lawless J (1995) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, Dorset, Massachusetts & Victoria: Element
● Peace Rhind J (2012) Essential Oils (second edition), London & Philadelphia; Singing Dragon
● Price L & Price S (2007) Aromatherapy for Health Professionals (4th Edition), Edinburgh, London etc; Churchill Livingstone Elsevier
● Tisserand R & Young R (2014) Essential Oil Safety (second edition), Edinburgh, London, New York et al: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier