Synonyms: knotted marjoram, Majorana hortensis, wurstkraut, summer marjoram
Scientific Name: Origanum majorana L.
Family: Labiatae or Lamiaceae (mint family)
Essential oil, bitter principles, tannins
Many people are familiar with marjoram as an ingredient in rich, fatty dishes to aid digestion. This flavoursome plant belongs to the large mint family which also includes such well-known herbs as thyme, basil, sage, rosemary, savoury, mint and many more. Its fine, square stems are reddish and multi-branched; its leaves oval with a fuzzy, silvery-green covering and many oil glands, and the compact plant grows to a height of up to 50 centimetres. The reddish to whitish flowers grow in clusters of spikes or ‘knots’, giving it its name of knotted marjoram. Sweet marjoram flowers from June to September. This warmth-loving, frost-sensitive perennial does not survive frosty winters: in our climate it is cultivated as an annual.
Marjoram helps alleviate indigestion, lack of appetite, flatulence and diarrhoea. An unguent preparation containing marjoram can be used for colds or for infant colic, for neuralgia, sprains, wounds and ulcers. In homeopathy marjoram, which acts on the nervous system and the female reproductive organs, is also used to treat sexual disorders.
The name marjoram is derived from the Arabic marjamie = the incomparable. Egyptians, Arabs, Greeks and Romans valued the spice which originally came from India. In antiquity marjoram was dedicated to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who is supposed to have created the potent little healing plant while in a state of perfect happiness. Marjoram was burned as incense in her honour. Wine spiced with marjoram was said to enhance sexual prowess and desire. Pliny the Elder (c. 23–79 AD) described one method of spicing wine. According to him, the Romans smoked herbal pipes filled mainly with sweet marjoram. They inhaled the smoke through a straw and then drank a little wine. In the mouth the marjoram-spiced smoke and the wine combined to form an aromatic beverage.
The women of Ancient Greece anointed their eyebrows and hair with essential oil of marjoram, which they added to their perfume mixtures.
The oldest surviving cookery book, De re coquinaria (On the Art of Cooking), which is ascribed to the famous Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius (1st century AD), includes marjoram among the ten most frequently used spices. Even today the classic wurstkraut is used to make fatty dishes and pulses more digestible.
Sweet marjoram was introduced to Europe by the Arabs in the 16th century. During the Middle Ages magical properties were attributed to the plant: it was thought to drive away spirits, imps and witches and to make spells and curses ineffective. Every house was hung with a bundle of dried marjoram for this purpose. During the birth of a child, marjoram and caraway were strewn on the windowsill to protect it from evil spirits. Given as a beverage, marjoram water was thought to promote children’s speech development.
The plant from another perspective
Sweet marjoram is quintessentially symbolic of warmth: it thrives and matures only in warm countries, is extremely frost-sensitive and exudes a warm pungent aroma. Normally we expect a plant to release its fragrance through its flowers, but in marjoram this function is displaced: the aromatic essential oil is stored in its leaves. The flowers, in contrast, are inconspicuous and almost hidden among the leaves. Even the fruits and seeds are surrounded by the green, fragrant leaves. Thus, in spite of its tiny flowers, the leafy marjoram does indeed bloom, although in a hidden, inward-looking way. In human beings the metabolic-reproductive system corresponds to the flowerlike. The warming sweet marjoram therefore alleviates digestive problems and problems of the pelvic organs.