The aromatic herb Majorana hortensis (alternatively Origanum majorana), a common plant in Mediterranean areas. The spicy camphoraceous odor of marjoram has long been cherished as an addition to a wide variety of foods; in the Middle Ages, marjoram was used as an air freshener.
Marjoram is in the mint family (Lamiaceae) and is a close relative of European or Greek oregano, with which it is often confused. There is still controversy concerning the proper taxonomic classification of this plant. Some investigators place it in the genus Origanum, whereas others continue to separate it into its own genus, Majorana. Many ecotypes or varieties of marjoram exist, both in wild populations and under cultivation. See also: Lamiales; Oregano
Marjoram (see illustration) is a small perennial [30–60 cm (1–2 ft) in height] and has ovate leaves extending up to 2.5 cm (1 in.) in length. The leaves are slightly hairy, as are the erect, somewhat woody stems. Marjoram flowers are white to light lavender or pink in color, but they are very small and usually go unnoticed; in contrast, the entire flower spike, or inflorescence, is easily noticeable.
Marjoram is native to North Africa and southern Europe; its range stretches into southern Germany. It is cultivated in numerous locations throughout the world, including Europe, Egypt, Israel, Mexico, India, and the United States. Cultivation is best accomplished in a warm environment with a low relative humidity. Marjoram will tolerate a frost, but prolonged cold and dampness will weaken or kill it. Well-drained fertile soil produces the most vigorous plants. In the United States, it is grown primarily in California as a result of the mild winters and low humidity needed for dehydration.
Marjoram is usually directly seeded into the field at a rate of 5–15 lb of seed per acre (5.6–16.8 kg/hectare). It will grow enough in the first year to be cut twice, and it is usually cut three times per year in subsequent years. After 4 years, yields drop off, and it is usually plowed under and then replanted in a new location to avoid disease buildup in the soil. Harvesting is accomplished mechanically or by hand, after which the leaves are dried as quickly as possible at low temperatures (37.8°C; 100°F) to preserve color and flavor.
Because it is a perennial, marjoram is more likely to become infected with soil-borne diseases than annual spices such as basil and savory. Both phytophthora rot and verticillium wilt sometimes infect this crop, with the resulting dieback and death of individual stems eventually spreading to whole plants and fields. See also: Plant pathology
The dried and fresh leaves are used as flavoring for meats (sausage), vegetables, cheeses, poultry stuffing blends, and sauces, especially tomato-based sauces. Marjoram oil is a colorless essential liquid used as a perfume in soaps and flavorings. See also: Essential oils; Spice and flavoring