A Herb That Combines Aroma, Flavor and Beauty
With Recipes And Ideas
Cuban Oregano combines aroma, flavor, and beauty. Grow it in the garden or indoors as a houseplant. Use it in the kitchen and as an ornamental plant with some surprising features.
Cuban Oregano- Coleus amboinicus- until recently called, Plectranthus amboinicus is a semi-succulent in the Lamiaceae (mint) family. Its foliage is mint like-hairy and thick. Some varieties are green to green/gray. However, I am growing a rather brilliant green and white variegated variety. This plant is not Oregano –Origanum vulgare. It is called Oregano because its taste and scent are remarkably similar: but more so!
Both plants have characteristics of their mint family membership: hairy leaves and stems, strong aromatic scent, opposite leaves.
Cuban Oregano is semi-succulent, notice the thick leaves and stems. The leaves are larger, about 2-2.5″ long. We are not sure of its origin. I lean toward the Indonesia story.
True oregano has tiny leaves and a slightly less intense scent and flavor. The leaves are very small about 1/2″long. It is a Mediterranean native.
Why Do Plant Names Keep Changing?
Why do the genus and species of plants so annoyingly get changed? Here’s why. Throughout history, plants have been named for their appearance. If it looks like a daisy, it’s a daisy.
Then we discovered DNA research, and it was off to the races. This is sometimes hard on us gardeners who learn one name and then need to learn another, but hope is in the air. Most plants have now been tested, and this name change should slow down considerably. Why is this important to us gardeners? It’s all about “Plant Identification”. If I don’t know what it is, I can’t take care of it!
Here is my best answer; “Latin For Gardeners-A Little Help.”
Aroma, Flavor and Beauty
Both herbs are strongly aromatic, with a pungent taste composed of flavor notes that are earthy, green, woodsy, and even hay-like. American diners did not understand the value of oregano until our GIs came home after serving in Italy during WWll. They all brought back a yen for pizza with Oregano. That’s when the flavor took off, and we never looked back.
We Have Many Oregano Varieties-Why Grow And Cook With Cuban Oregano?
Cuban Oregano can do a few tricks that true Oregano cannot!
- It provides a robust version of the Oregano flavor.
- It is Oregano for warm climates. I garden in South Florida; Cuban Oregano is easy to grow all year round. True Oregano struggles in our summers. Cuban Oregano appears in cuisines throughout the warm climate world. You will find it as popular in Latin American cooking as it is in Asia. In the Caribbean, it’s a big hit.
- In temperate climate gardens, you will find it as easy to grow as any herb. Grow it outdoors in summer and as a house plant in winter. Picture that green and white adding to your indoor garden.
- Rub a little on your skin; it will discourage mosquitoes.
- Rabbits and deer strongly dislike it. In our yard, they hop right by it to graze on the lawn.
- Pollinators love its flowers in pink, lavender, and white.
- It’s versatile, rounded, and trailing; it makes noteworthy container plants, hanging baskets, and garden plants.
- You will find it absurdly easy to propagate.
Plants Rabbits Don’t Eat
Cuban oregano has this unique feature hard to find among plants! It will discourage foraging rabbits. They do not like Cuban oregano.
We have problem rabbits in the garden, and we planted the groundcover area pictured below to discourage them. This has worked well for the first 7 months. Today we discovered some damage to Asiatic Jasmine. Even in Florida, it is winter, and the wildlife are all hungry. The plants closest to the Cuban Oregano are undamaged.
We will make some new plants and put them in the jasmine area. I will report on how this goes. To make new plants, see the section near the end on propagation,
To read the article about how we designed to discourage deer and rabbits, see this.
Most of us live with some variety of the Cottontail rabbit. We have one of its offspring, the “Marsh Rabbit.” They are all voracious eaters.
How To Cook With And Use Cuban Oregano’s Flavor
First, Where Did We Get It
We are not sure. Most sources I read place oregano origins in South and East Africa. I found a source that uses the species name, amboinicus to suggest an origin in Indonesia (where there is an island called Ambon). Some suggest various places in South East Asia. Some garden historians think that both Spanish explorers and Arab traders took it along with them from one place to another.
Now it is firmly established in warm climates everywhere.
Why Is It Called Cuban Oregano?
Who knows? Look at its other names, Spanish Thyme, Indian Borage, Mexican Mint, Puerto Rican Thyme, and my personal favorite, Vicks Thyme (after Vicks Vapo Rub). It seems that everybody and nobody takes credit for it!
In Havana, they call it “French Thyme”!
Cuban Oregano Plant Features
It is considered semi-succulent, with fuzzy leaves with serrated edges. The foliage is gray-green or variegated. The leaves of the variegated variety have white saw-toothed edges surrounding spring green centers. It looks a little more like a pet than a plant! The lavender, white and pink flowers are arranged in a panicle (a multi-branched inflorescence).
Even the descriptions of the taste and scent are extreme. People say that it smells like oregano, mint, and thyme. They also say it smells like turpentine and camphor!
How To Use Cuban Oregano
Use Cuban oregano as you would use any Mediterranean oregano, either dried or fresh. Start by using less of each form as the flavor of Cuban oregano is more pungent.
Cuban oregano is easy to use in the kitchen. Today it is popular in warm climate cooking throughout the globe. Looking for Cuban Oregano recipes is a little like finding seashells. Find the first horse conch, and then you will see them everywhere!
It’s the same thing with Cuban Oregano; you will find very few actual recipe offerings. Searching in-depth, I found anecdotal stories about its use in different foods. In the foods of warm climate cultures, they will say oregano, but they are thinking Cuban oregano.
How I Am Going About Using It
I am seeking recipes that I like, that call for true Oregano. Then I am amending the recipe by cutting the Oregano quantity slightly. Use your own taste. I began by cutting the quantity, in half. Now I feel that’s too cautious. When using it in cooked dishes, add it early and taste.
I am learning two things while cooking with it. Over time I use it more freely and second, when cooked it becomes more mellow.
How To Measure The Strength For Your Taste
Consider this idea: in my herb garden and kitchen, I put herbs with pungent, woodsy flavor profiles along a continuum in the following order.
- First- for flavors that are woodsy, sweet, and mild-cook with Marjoram. Use from salad to sausage, cheese, egg, tomato, pizza for a sweeter milder taste.
- Second-woodsy, and slightly more pungent- use Italian Oregano. Olive oil based foods, tomato centric, meat marinades, and yes, the pizza the GI’s brought home!
- Third-boldly aromatic- add Greek Oregano. Same dishes but for a stronger Mediterannean flavor.
- Fourth- go for Cuban Oregano
Good Ways To Work With Cuban Oregano
- Use it with other flavorings together in a blender or food processor. Add it to an onion, garlic, celery, carrot, tomato, pepper, etc., oils, vinegar, condiments, seasonings. The blender makes it easy to balance the flavors.
- Chop it with other ingredients in salsas, etc. Add it slowly and taste frequently. You will quickly find your best flavor balance.
Other Herbs To Use It With
Cuban Oregano Flavor And Uses
We like to find new tastes in the Caribbean and bring them home to our kitchen, and we have discovered Cuban oregano, used in seasoning chicken and goats, chili pastes, and flavoring omelets. Around the Indian ocean, find it in curries, eaten raw, and even in beer! Taste it with fish, pork or beans, and rice. It is used in recipes for fish, mutton, and goat because the bold flavors stand up to the meats.
You will find it in the foods of Java, Malaysia in curries. In India the leaves are deep-fried and it flavors beer and wine. I would like to try the fried leaves. The outside is crunchy but the inside remains pungent, fresh, and green!
In Traditional Medicine
Cuban oregano has an extensive history of medicinal uses. It is used in respiratory issues, malaria, insect bites, and more. Like other plants in the Mint family, it is rich in the essential oils Carvacrol (high in antioxidant activity) and Thymol (used as a natural ingredient in pesticides used to repel animals.
See the photo with the outdoor seating area. We rub a leaf on ourselves when sitting out at night.
What do they call it in Havana? French Thyme!
Cuban Oregano Recipes And Ideas
Cuban Style Mojo Marinated Pork Tenderloin With Black Beans
One day, while in the market for dinner to use a pork roast thawing in the fridge, I found this tasty excuse to play with Cuban oregano. This is billed by its author as a weeknight dinner and it’s all true! Here is how to find it From A Chef’s Kitchen.
My Hands On Findings
- It is delicious and convenient.
- It is nice enough to feed a guest; I will make the pork with beans this weekend and add the famous Columbia Restaurant, 1905 salad, and a loaf of Cuban bread. If you have a crowd (someday after the pandemic is done), It is easy to make two of these tenderloins.
- Use the Cuban oregano; when cooked, it’s sharp taste becomes remarkably mellow.
The Columbia, founded in Tampa, FL’s Latin Quarter, Ybor City, is Florida’s oldest restaurant. There are five restaurants, three in beautiful historic locations, and two cafes. If you come to Florida this winter, check their website. Here is the salad recipe.
Grilled Chicken Thighs With Cuban Oregano
There are loads of recipes we love for chicken thighs in our house. This one looks like fun. I picked this recipe because it uses a blender which is a fast way to incorporate the thick leaves of the Cuban Oregano plant.
Mojo Sauce or Marinade
In Cuban cooking, Mojo sauce is one containing garlic, olive oil or pork lard, and citrus juice. It can have various flavors, tomato, avocado, or pepper, but the first ingredients are most common. It makes a lovely marinade for roast pork. We lived for many years in a town famous for its Cuban cooks, and we developed a taste for the cooking.
Like most, this recipe calls for oregano; adjust the quantity for the strength of Cuban Oregano. Where we live, bitter orange is easy to find. If you cannot find it, use equal parts of orange and lime juice, grapefruit, orange, and lime.
Oregano cocktails made with oregano simple syrup can be adjusted to use Cuban Oregano. Make the simple syrup, with equal parts of granulated sugar and water. Stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and steep the oregano until you like the taste. This will keep in the refrigerator in a sealed container for up to a month.
Our First Plant
Variegated Cuban Oregano
Our first plant was variegated, you can buy Cuban oregano in a soft shade of green or in this variegated form. You will find the flavors similar. Pick the color you like.
Here it is- it’s the variegated one. From left to right, the plants are Chive, Asiatic Jasmine, Blue Daze, Cuban Oregano, and Dwarf Mondo Grass. We have a plan to use ground cover in a spot in the backyard. Our problem is a family of neighboring Marsh Rabbits who are always hungry.
We tested several ground cover plants that we had used in other homes. The blue daze, the newer “Blew My Mind” cultivar is beautiful with vivid blue blossoms. We loved it in another Florida house, but then we had two Jack Russell Terriers and rabbits were no problem. The Dwarf Mondo grass is a lovely and very dark green. We are also interested in a Liriope plant,
We are adding some plants in the onion family with the hope of discouraging the rabbits. The potent performer was the Cuban Oregano; if it is nearby, the rabbits go elsewhere. They graze boldly in our backyard, but, so far, they avoid any area with Cuban Oregano!
Note the variegated Cuban Oregano on the right with newly planted groundcovers.
How To Grow Cuban Oregano
Buying The Plants
Good cooks and gardeners complain about buying pretty plants, labeled oregano, and later finding them tasteless! Whichever oregano you are using, try to buy from a retailer who shows you the Botanical names. Here are the names for true oregano and the different varieties.
Marjoram. This is a similar but more subtle taste. Here is what you need to know.
Botanical Latin-A Little Help. This will show you how to decipher and use the labels to your advantage.
Use it in mixed beds, mass plantings, and as a ground cover. It requires morning sun and fast-draining, nutrient-rich soil with a neutral pH and prefers hot and dry conditions. It is hardy in zones 9-12. In other zones, you can use it as an annual, or bring a potted plant into the house. This will take you to the USDA plant hardiness zone map.
Water And Fertilizer
Water the plant when the top one or two inches of soil is completely dry to the touch. Then water thoroughly, watering a container until the water flows out the bottom of the pot. Fertilize the herb during the spring and summer growing season, using one tablespoon 10-10-10 fertilizer per square foot. Measure the fertilizer as overfertilization reduces the flavor of the plant.
Pruning and Harvesting
The plant will spread, providing ample opportunities to harvest and make cuttings that root in water. Trim to keep the plant’s mounded shape. Harvest by cutting the amount you need just above a leaf node. Cut your piece with sharp scissors. Here’s how to use pruning and harvesting to get the best from your herbs.
Preserving Cuban Oregano
You can preserve sections of the plant by drying. As a semi-succulent with thick stems and leaves, the process will be slower than other herbs. Also, note that Cuban oregano makes an attractive and easy to grow house plant and you should easily have fresh leaves all year.
Pests And Diseases
Cuban Oregano is relatively disease-free. It is susceptible to root and crown rot due to excess water. Avoid overhead watering if you can.
The definition of poor draining soil is dirt in which the soil stays wet for extended periods of time. The water fills the spaces between soil particles, and there is no room for air. This is the soil to avoid. Do so by amending your soil with organic matter, adding some sand, and raising the planting area higher than nearby low places.
In The Herb Garden
Plant Cuban Oregano with other herbs that require similar growing conditions. Plant in part to full sun, in well-drained soil. Water when dry.
Good plants to grow near the strong aroma of Cuban Oregano are other stronger scented plants, these would include sage, rosemary, thyme oregano. stronger scented mint, or lemon balm. Mint and Chive can be planted near Oregano as their scent is not affected but use separate pots as they prefer more moisture.
This plant, which usually grows about 12-18″high, is suitable for container growing. It is not hardy in temperate climates and can be brought indoors for the winter. In warm climates, container plants can be moved for sun protection and to avoid heavy rains.
Plant Cuban Oregano, decoratively in mixed containers with begonia, impatiens, Fuschia, and coleus.
The herb’s trailing nature is attractive along the pot’s side; it is a good choice for hanging baskets. Hanging baskets are also notorious high water users; this makes Cuban Oregano a low maintenance plant for hanging baskets.
Cuban Oregano is very easy to propagate, I use two methods and the results are essentially interchangeable. Take your choice.
Cut the pieces about 4-6″ long and place them in a container of water in indirect sun. Changing the water no less frequently than weekly, plant in soil when the white roots reach one inch in length.
Using a small container of light potting soil, poke a pencil-sized hole in the center and plant the stem.
Preparing The Cutting
Cut a piece from a plant about 8″ tall. Remove the lower branches and the larger top leaves. You can cut large top leaves in half. Cut the piece directly below the node (where leaves join the stem. This place has the most root hormone and will root the fastest. Leaving more than one root node under the soil in the pot will increase the chances of rooting promptly.
I like having multiple plants because they are pretty in the garden and make handy little hostess gifts.
Cuban Oregano As An Indoor House Plant
Plant your new cutting in well-drained potting soil in a container with drainage and set on a tray with gravel. Give it a sunny window and cook all winter
Try out this interesting and tasty herb. You will find that if you have a variety of fresh herbs and your plants are conveniently located, you will be inventive in the kitchen.
Cuban Oregano In Song!
It means country girl from Guantanamo, and it is a song loved throughout the world. You will be most familiar with the version using words of a poem by the hero of Cuba, Jose Marti. It is a memorable poem, and the song is covered by, well, everyone. Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, The Sandpipers (Pete Seeger’s arrangement), Julio Inglesias, Jimmy Buffet, Wyclef Jean. The Joan Biaz version is beautiful.
The Buena Vista Social Club brought it to Carnegie Hall. Any Mariachi band can do it with its eyes closed, the British use it as a Soccer anthem, and in Sweden, it is an incentive to get people to recycle!
Some Lyrics, in English
I am a truthful man From the land of the palm Before dying, I want to Share these poems of my soul -Jose Marti
But That’s Not How It Started
It was most likely written and performed by Jose Fernandez Diaz, a popular Havana entertainer of the 1920s and ”30s. He sang it about a girlfriend who dumped him!
And food was involved! She made him the iconic Cuban steak sandwich flavored with oregano and brought it to him at his radio station. She watched him eating it while at the same time flirting with another woman. He says she grabbed the sandwich away from his hand and left with it, never to be seen again.
So if some nice lady gives you a delicious Cuban sandwich-show some manners!
Cuban Oregano-University of Florida This is science-based research from a University in a Warm Climate where Cuban Oregano is a perennial. If your local County Extension Service has information for your zone read them also. Here is how to find your own Extension Service.
Cuban oregano is among a wide range of herbs we grow in the garden and use in the kitchen. Do you think you will try it? Contact me.