What is Marjoram?

In Europe, marjoram was a traditional symbol of youth and romantic love. Used by Romans as an aphrodisiac, it was used to cast love spells and was worn at weddings as a sign of happiness during the Middle Ages. Greeks who wore marjoram wreaths at weddings called it “joy of the mountains.” It was used to brew beer before hops was discovered, and flavored a wine called hippocras.

A cousin of the oregano family, marjoram originated in Mediterranean regions and is now a commonly used spice in many parts of Europe. Called za’tar in the Middle East and often mistaken for oregano, it is also a popular spicing in eastern Europe.

Origin and Varieties

Marjoram is indigenous to northern Africa and southwest Asia. It is cultivated around the Mediterranean, in England, Central and Eastern Europe, South America, the United States, and India.


Marjoram leaf is used fresh, as whole or chopped, and dried whole or broken, and ground. The flowering tops and seeds, which are not as strong as the leaves, are also used as flavorings. Sweet marjoram is a small and oval-shaped leaf. It is light green with a greyish tint. Marjoram is fresh, spicy, bitter, and slightly pungent with camphorlike notes. It has the fragrant herbaceous and delicate, sweet aroma of thyme and sweet basil. Pot marjoram is bitter and less sweet.

Chemical Components

Sweet marjoram has 0.3% to 1% essential oil, mostly monoterpenes. It is yellowish to dark greenish brown in color. It mainly consists of cis-sabinene hydrate (8% to 40%), γ-terpinene (10%), α-terpinene (7.6%), linalyl acetate (2.2%), terpinen 4-ol (18% to 48%), myrcene (1.0%), linalool (9% to 39%), ρ-cymene (3.2%), caryophyllene (2.6%), and α-terpineol (7.6%). Its flavor varies widely depending on its origins.

The Indian and Turkish sweet marjorams have more d-linalool, caryophyllene, carvacrol, and eugenol. Its oleoresin is dark green, and 2.5 lb. are equivalent to 100 lb. of freshly ground marjoram. Marjoram contains calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and niacin.

Cooking with Marjoram

Marjoram is typically used in European cooking and is added to fish sauces, clam chowder, butter-based sauces, salads, tomato-based sauces, vinegar, mushroom sauces, and eggplant. In Germany, marjoram is called the “sausage herb” and is used with thyme and other spices in different types of sausages.

It is usually added at the end of cooking to retain its delicate flavor or as a garnish. It goes well with vegetables including cabbages, potatoes, and beans. The seeds are used to flavor confectionary and meat products.

The French add marjoram to bouquet garni and herbes fines for flavoring pork, fish, and lamb dishes. It is popular in Greek cooking, for grilled lamb and meats and to complement onions, garlic, and wine. Italians use it in tomato sauces, pizzas, fish dishes, and vegetables. In Eastern Europe, it is added to grilled meats and stews with paprika, chilies, fruits, nuts, and other dried spices. North Africans and Middle Easterners use marjoram in lamb, mutton, barbecues, vegetables, and seafood.

In the United States, it is used commercially in poultry seasonings, liverwurst, bologna, cheeses, sausages, soups, and salad dressings.

Spice Blends: bouquet garni, fines herbes, khmeli suneli, sausage blend, and pickle blends.

Health Benefits of Marjoram

Greeks used marjoram extensively to treat dropsy, convulsions, and poisons. Traditionally, it was used in tea to cure headaches, head colds, calm nervous disorders, and to clear sinuses. Marjoram has also been used to comfort stomachaches and muscular pains and improve circulation. It is found to have good antioxidant properties with fats and helps to retain color of carotenoid pigments.

Substitue for Marjoram

Oregano is an ideal substitute for marjoram, it is very similar in taste and texture but slightly stonger. Its flavor is not quite as floral or sweet as marjoram, so you should use roughly half of the amount of oregano that the recipe calls for in marjoram. If you use too much, it may overpower your dish. Note that oregano is strongest when used in its dry form; fresh oregano is more similar to marjoram in flavor.

Growing Marjoram

Marjoram grows well from seed, and you can either start your plants indoors or sow them directly out into the garden. For an early start, plant marjoram seeds inside 8 weeks before your last frost date. You shouldn’t bury the seeds too deeply. The seeds are very tiny, so most people don’t bother trying to separate them to plant individually. Just plant a few in each seedling pot, and thin them out to 1 plant per pot or tray cell. Just sprinkle a little bit of soil over top of the seeds on the surface.

Keep them moist but not overly wet in a sunny spot until they sprout. If you have very poor or sandy soil, you may want to give your plants a fertilizer feeding each spring but otherwise they won’t need any added nutrients.

They are extremely low-maintenance. For the first month water your plants whenever they get dry but after that they should thrive just fine without any additional care from you. Where marjoram parts company with its cousin oregano is in its delicacy. Unable to tolerate a hard frost, it’s best to bring marjoram indoors if your area experiences harsh winters. Marjoram needs bright light to overwinter indoors, so make sure to place it in a location where it will get good light, or supplement with grow lights.

Happy to overwinter indoors in a sunny window, marjoram just needs an occasional watering with liquid fertilizer. Put the pot back out on a deck or patio in spring when all threat of frost has passed for the season.

Harvesting Marjoram

Select new growth just before buds form, and never take too much. Harvest about a quarter of the plant per season, no more

Other Names

Sweet marjoram, knotted marjoram, and annual marjoram. It is also called marzanjush, za’tar (Arabic), marzanan (Armenian), mah yeh lah fah, ma yuek lan fa (Cantonese, Mandarin), merjan (Danish), marjolein (Dutch), avishan (Farsi), marjolaine (French), majoran (German), matzourana (Greek), mayoran, za’tar (Hebrew), mirzan josh (Hindi), majorama (Hungarian), maggiorana (Italian), mayorana (Japanese), maruvammu (Malayalam), merian (Norwegian), manjerona (Portuguese), majoran (Russian), mejorana (Spanish), mejram (Swedish), maruvu (Tamil), mercankosk, kekik out (Turkish), and marva kusha (Urdu). Pot marjoram: rigani, common marjoram, dictamo, oregano, French marjoram, golden marjoram, curly marjoram, gold splash marjoram, and al maraco.

Scientific Names

Sweet marjoram: Origanum (O) hortensis (or Majorana hortensis).

Pot marjoram: O. onites

Wild marjoram: O. vulgare.

Syrian marjoram is called za’tar

Family: Labiatae or Lamiaceae (mint family).

Image by ivabalk from Pixabay