Ornamental Oregano

Stems with pale purple flowers and a bumble bee
Flowering ornamental oregano Credit: Nikita Turkovich on Unsplash

Origanum species

There are a lot of different oreganos. There are the ones with spicy fragrant foliage—the culinary oreganos.  And there are the ones that have very attractive flowers—the ornamental oreganos.

All oreganos have flowers that are attractive to a wide variety of bees—native bees and honey bees—as well as a wide range of beneficial insects that keep problem insects under control.

They all come from hot, dry areas of the world making them low water plants.

And they’re all deer resistant. This is one of the few cutting flower plants that I grow outside of my deer fencing.

The ornamental oreganos have nice flowers but little to no fragrance

What Ornamental Oregano Flowers are Like

The flowers vary widely between varieties. Some have showy papery bracts similar to hop plants. Others have wiry stems with tight or lose clusters of flowers. The colors range from pinks to purples.

Yellow flowers mixed with tiny purple flowers on angular stems
'Hopley's Purple' oregano is a nice bouquet filler with Golden Glow

What the Plants are Like

Ornamental oregano plants grow a basal mat, that is, a mat of leaves and short runners that grow close to the ground. And they spread, making them nice to divide and start in a new area or share with friends.

During the warm season, flower stems grow up and bloom. Most have a nice long window of good harvesting time. Cut the flower stems at the base and in some varieties more will grow.

Ornamental oregano plants are nice in perennial, low maintenance borders and cottage gardens.

Green mounding foliage with stems and closed buds growing up
'Hopley's Purple' oregano getting ready to bloom

Here’s a List of the Ones I Find Best for Bouquets and/or for Drying Use:

Origanum laevigatum : There are several varieties of this species, all native to Turkey and Cyprus. They all prefer dry conditions, so water deeply but infrequently.

(Remember: when a genus or a species name is mentioned once, it is written in full. After that it can be written with just its first letter, so long as it cannot be confused with another plant name, and it gets capitalized as normal.)

Here are good varieties:

  1.   l. ‘Rosenkuppel’:  Dark green roundish flowers form a dense mat; by summer wiry stems grow up to 15 in. with full clusters of rosy-pink flowers with purple calyces; blooms till October, good as a cut flower and for drying. Attracts butterflies, needs little water.
  2. l.  ‘Herrenhausen’: Dark green foliage, dark lilac blooms last long as a cut flower, and dries well. Same as Rosenkuppel but with larger bracts and lilac-pink flowers. Very drought tolerant, grow it in a hot, sunny spot, good draining soil, keep on the dry side.
  3.   l. ‘Hopley’s Purple’: Similar to Rosenkuppel but sparse, spread out purple flowers on angular wiry stems. Nice as a bouquet filler and as a dried flower.
  4.   l. ‘Pilgrim’: rows with gray-green leaves and flowers stems to 2 ft. tall, with sprays of deep rose-purple hop-like flowers; good fresh in bouquets or beautiful dried in arrangements.

Other species and hybrids:

  1. ‘Santa Cruz’: Flowers are shades of dusty pink and mauve with lime green calyces, on 18 in. stems, in summer. Plant looks good all summer. The flowers are excellent for drying, they hold their color for years, and they don’t shatter when dry, making them very easy to work with. Brings in butterflies.
  2. ‘Bristol Cross’: Leaves are larger than others and fragrant, they can be used for a culinary herb; grows to only 6 in. high, spreads to 18 in. wide acting like a ground cover; sends up stems of flowers with elongated hop-like flower structures starting with pale green at the base and going to pink papery bracts with little pink flowers. The flower is very good for drying and wreath-making. It likes very dry conditions.
  3. dictamus, Dittany of Crete: I just love this one, low growing, to 8 in. tall, full sun, Leaves are rounded and fuzzy gray, and have an aromatic fragrance. The rosy-pink flowers come out of chartreuse, papery, hop-like bracts that are tinged with rose. The stems are short but the flowers dry very well and are nice in wreaths. It is native only to the island of Crete. Its branches grow wide and make a stunning display over a retaining wall.
  4. rotundifolium: Native to Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia; low-growing, with very round leaves, and hop-like flowers on low, wiry stems; harvest flowers before any of the bracts turn brown, but you have a long window for harvesting.
  5. r. ‘Kent Beauty’: This is one of the most popular and readily available ornamental oreganos. It has large hop-like papery flower bracts that are light pale green and transition to rosy pink and pale green at the end. The flowers that peek out are purple-pink; the plant is low-growing and is used in hanging baskets, as a ground cover, and on small slopes where it can also hang over the edge of a retaining wall; the flower stems are short but they can be cut for use in wreaths—they can dry in place in the wreath.
  6. r. ‘Barbara Tingey’: This one is also good for trailing over hanging baskets, similar to ‘Kent Beauty’; this one has bigger and better flowers, but it’s hard to find.

How to Grow Ornamental Oregano

Zones 6-9, but Dittany of Crete is only hardy to zone 7, full sun, or some light afternoon shade is good in hot summer climates; low water needs, water well to establish, then minimal water—do not overwater, let dry between waterings; do not over feed, a yearly side-dressing of good compost after bloom is all you need…but if you miss that, it’s usually ok, a good mulch will keep them happy for a few years.

Buy plants to start. Oreganos cross easily with each other, so if you start with a named variety plant you’ll get what you want. Once you have them they will spread, not aggressively, and you can divide them for new plants.

At the end of the flowering season or in early spring, cut back all the previous year’s flower stems and foliage stems. You’ll see the new foliage at the soil level waiting for spring to come.

Dried bundle of purple ornamental oregano on cutting board with loaf of artisan bread
Dried bundle of an ornamental oregano variety Credit: Maria Ionova on Unsplash

How to Harvest Ornamental Oregano Flowers

Cut at the base of the flowering stems.

For bract forming varieties, harvest when the bracts have nice color but before any of them turn brown. For the others, harvest when many of the flowers are open but before some turn brown. For drying, use the same guidelines. For either, you have a nice wide window for harvesting.

Many of the ornamental oregano flowers can be fragile and shatter when you work with them once they’re dry.

Here’s what you can do to prevent shattering dried flowers:

For long stemmed varieties, cut enough flowers to make a bundle that will be a good size for your display vessel. Tie them together somewhere in the middle of the stems so that your arrangement will be full. Stand in the vessel to dry.

Or work them into wreaths or other arrangements when they are still fresh and pliable so they’ll dry in the wreath.

Yet, another option is to dry them and wait until there is very damp weather when they become pliable again, and work with them and other flowers then. See how that works for lavender. Go to the post-harvest handling section.

My Favorite Varieties

I’m trying several new varieties this year, but I have mostly used Hopley’s Purple, and I have at times grown Dittany of Crete, which I’ve used in wreaths.

I’ve also grown what is known as ‘wild marjoram’. It ends up reseeding heavily and the flowers were inconsistent. But I do think it’s nice to bring in pollinators and beneficial insects and they dry for wilder looking bouquets. You can start them from seed. But only grow them if you have plenty of space.

Sources for Ornamental Oregano Plants

Mountain Valley Growers in Squaw Valley, CA

Morningsun Herb Farm in Vacaville, CA

Secret Garden Growers in Canby, OR

Seeds for wild marjoram are available from Johnny’s Seeds in Maine

Flowers to Go With Ornamental Oregano

Here are some flowers that will go well with and bloom around the same time as ornamental oreganos:

Lavender: Good to mix with other flowers and to dry with Hopley’s Purple.

Perennial Sunflower: The strong yellow color goes well with the long stemmed O. laevigatum oreganos.

Golden Glow: Same as above

Alstroemerias: Longer stemmed oreganos provide a structural contrast to the soft Alstroemerias

Most of the Drying Flowers are great for drying with and wreath making with any of the ornamental oreganos.

Pink flower on left is bee balm, the right side is wild marjoram with leaves, stems, and pinkish-purple flower heads
Pink bee balm is on the left, wild marjoram is everything else, with its stems, foloage, and nice little clusters of foliage. This patch had just run free with little to no water from me, it attracted many good bugs to my garden. But I rarely harvested it, though I do think it can be a good addition to fresh and dried bouquets and wreaths. It's easy to start from seed.
Mixed bouquet with yellow, pink, and purple flowers with stems of purple ornamental oregano as filler
'Hopley's Purple' and other long-stemmed ornamental oreganos make perfect bouquet filler. This bouquet has golden glow, perennial sunflower, alstroemerias, ecninacea, statice, and an agastache stem.