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Syrian oregano is a perennial variety of oregano that grows upright and can reach heights of between 2 ½ and 4 feet tall. Small, heart-shaped leaves are pale green in color with a velvety texture making them look almost gray. Syrian oregano stems bloom in the summer with small, two-lipped white flowers growing in clusters. The small flower buds, just before they open, have a very concentrated flavor. Syrian oregano is the most aromatic of the oregano varieties. The flavor of Syrian oregano is similar to a combination of Greek oregano, marjoram and thyme.
Syrian oregano is available in the early spring.
Syrian oregano is a Mediterranean variety of oregano botanically classified as Origanum syriacum. As is the case with some plants, it is also known synonymously as Origanum maru. This perennial herb is also commonly referred to as Za’atar (pronounced Zah-tar), which in the Middle East refers to both the herb and a spice blend used throughout the region. Syrian oregano grows wild in its native habitat, though it is cultivated for commercial and home use, and often imported.
Syrian oregano contains thymol, the main component in the oils extracted by the plant’s leaves. The compound is not only responsible for the thyme-like smell of the herb, but it also is a disinfectant and antiseptic. For centuries, Syrian oregano has been used medicinally to treat gum disease and tooth decay. The thymol in Syrian oregano also acts to relieve skin irritations.
Syrian oregano can be used fresh, as is the case with younger leaves and flower buds, and it can be dried and powdered. The scent and flavor are strong, so keep that in mind when using Syrian oregano. The herb is most often paired with other herbs in rubs and seasoning blends. In the Middle East, the herb is combined with other herbs, such as thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds, and mixed with olive oil and spread onto bread. It can be spread on dough before the bread is cooked, sealing the flavor into the finished loaf. Use whole Syrian oregano leaves in sauces and soups, or chop and add to vegetable dishes. Syrian oregano is often used as a rub for roasts or chicken. Use Syrian oregano flower buds as a garnish for soups and quiches. Syrian oregano will keep for up to a week when refrigerated in plastic.
Syrian oregano is sometimes referred to as “bible hyssop” because it is believed to be the true hyssop mentioned in the bible. In the bible, hyssop was said to have powers of spiritual purification. Most scholars believe Origanum syriacum is the real ‘hyssop’ from the bible because true hyssop, Hyssopus officinalis, is not native to the Mediterranean. The herb was often used in Jewish purification rituals to remove the impurity of being exposed to death.
Syrian oregano is a member of the mint family and is native to the Mediterranean region, possibly Lebanon. Syrian oregano prefers drier soils and climates, and does not grow well in humid or very wet environments. It is drought tolerant and grows easily in the wild and in the garden. In Israel, wild Syrian oregano has protected status as a result of over-picking and overexploitation. If anyone is caught picking the herb in the wild they are given a hefty fine. In Lebanon, Syrian oregano grows wild in desert and rocky areas throughout the country. The Lebanese have begun cultivating Syrian oregano due to high demand and waning supply in the wild, leading to an endangered status. Because of this, most commercial blends of “za’atar” do not actually contain Syrian oregano. Outside of its native region, Syrian oregano may be spotted at local farmer’s markets or in home gardens in regions with a similar climate.