I enjoy discovering different ingredients to use in my cooking, especially ingredients I can grow myself. Cuban oregano is one of those interesting flavors. A potent and versatile herb, Cuban oregano is known around the world by several different common names. Depending on your locale, you may have heard it called “soup mint,” Mexican mint, Spanish thyme, or Indian borage.
However, Cuban oregano doesn’t hail from Cuba. In fact, it isn’t technically an oregano at all. Thought to have come from parts of southern and eastern Africa, this useful plant was picked up and transported throughout India and southeast Asia, including island nations like Indonesia, the Philippines, and beyond. These days, it grows as a perennial throughout many tropical areas.
The Cuban oregano plant is very easy to grow in garden beds and works well alongside basil, rosemary, lavender, and other herbs. It also can thrive in outdoor containers and indoors as houseplants.
What is Cuban oregano?
Cuban oregano is also known as Coleus amboinicus and Plectranthus amboinicus. Part of the Lamiaceae family, it is also often confused with what is commonly referred to as the Vicks plant because of its scent. Vicks is actually Plectranthus hadiensis var. Tomentosus and sometimes referred to as Plectranthus tomentosa. My neighbor once gave me a cutting of the Vicks plant and the differences are evident in the foliage.
While both plants are fuzzy, Cuban oregano has leaves that are more lemon balm or mint-like. The leaves of a Vicks plant are more rounded.
Grown more for its pleasing foliage than its blooms, tiny white or sometimes lavender flowers along tall flower spikes may appear. (However, depending on the length of your particular growing season, your plants might not have enough time to flower before cold weather sets in.)
How does Cuban oregano differ from other oreganos?
While true oregano and Cuban oregano are both included in the mint family, these plants actually look quite different from one another. Common oregano (Origanum vulgare) and its subspecies relatives like Greek oregano, have comparatively small leaves with smooth margins. Meanwhile, Cuban oregano has larger, fuzzy leaves with toothed edges. And the stems are much thicker and hairier, relative to those of common oregano.
In terms of flavor, common oregano and its many subspecies can vary widely but are generally sharper than Cuban oregano. Sometimes used to balance the heat of especially spicy dishes, it has a slightly sweet, camphor-like taste with hints of mint and oregano.
The best conditions growing conditions
In tropical climates, Cuban oregano is grown as a flowering perennial. In the U.S., it is hardy to zones 9 or 10 through 11. A plant can flourish in either partial sun or full sun, but, as a general rule, it needs at least four to six hours of sunlight daily. Rather than letting this plant scorch under the harshest, midday rays, it’s best to locate it in a spot that will get the gentler morning or evening hours of direct sunlight. As for the great indoors, these plants can do well in pots placed on or near a sunny windowsill.
Like its succulent relatives, Cuban oregano prefers dry conditions, as well as soil that is loose, well-draining, and rich in organic matter.
Growing Cuban oregano from seed
Live plants may be hard to come by at your local nursery. However you may be able to find Cuban oregano seeds online. Remember, it’s is a tropical plant, so, in its natural environment, the soil is warm. For your seeds to start successfully you’ll need to maintain a temperature of at least 70°F (21°C) in your growing medium. Using a seedling heat mat is can help with germination.
For the best results, choose a very lightweight, well-draining growing medium like an organic cactus mix. Moisten the potting mix thoroughly, allow the excess water to drain out, and then sprinkle your seeds on the soil’s surface. Gently press the seeds into place and then lightly mist them. Place your seed-starting tray or container on top of the seedling heat mat and periodically mist the soil’s surface. Your seeds should germinate in about two to three weeks.
Growing Cuban oregano from cuttings
Growing Cuban oregano from stem cuttings is quick and very easy. To start:
- Snip a few of the healthiest-looking stems from an established plant. Each stem cutting should be about two to three inches long and needs to include three or four leaf nodes. (A leaf node is the part of the stem from which true leaves emerge. When buried under soil, roots can also grow from these nodes.)
- Carefully strip off the bottom one or two sets of leaves, leaving at least one set of true leaves at the top of the stem intact. (If you like, you may choose to apply rooting hormone to these newly exposed node areas, but this step is optional.)
- Slide each stem into a container of moistened growing medium. Gently press the stem cutting into place so that the soil makes good contact with the buried stem portion. Keep the soil moist but not waterlogged.
- If you have a seedling heat mat, slide it underneath the planted cuttings. This speeds the rooting process overall. It also can help to reduce the likelihood that you’ll lose your stem cuttings to damping-off disease.
One clue that your cuttings have established some roots? You’ll notice new growth forming along the stems. Watch for two to three new sets of leaves along each stem before transplanting rooted cuttings into the garden or a new pot.
Growing Cuban oregano from transplants
If you already have access to a stand of well-established Cuban oregano plants growing in an outdoor garden bed or even in a large pot, you’re in luck. Under the right conditions, it spreads easily—particularly when its stems grow long enough to droop against the soil.
A single long stem making good contact with moist soil can generate new plants at each leaf node. So, if you gently dig around the perimeter of your Cuban oregano, you may find several of these young “volunteer” plants. Although they start out as sets of leaves growing along a parent plant’s lengthy bit of stem, in time they can develop their own sets of roots. You can use scissors to separate small, rooting volunteer plants from one another and then plant them elsewhere in the garden or in a new pot.
Caring for your plants
As long as you follow a few basic instructions, Cuban oregano is an easy-going garden guest.
- Watering: If your plants’ roots become waterlogged, you might notice its leaves begin to yellow and die back, and, if wet conditions persist long-term, Cuban oregano can succumb to damping off. With that in mind, when watering a potted plant, keep excess water off its leaves by bottom watering. When watering plants in a garden bed or very large container, direct the spout of your hose or watering can at the soil level and try to avoid splashing water directly onto the plant leaves.
- Feeding: Cuban oregano is not a heavy feeder and as long as your garden or potting soil includes some nutrient-rich, organic matter like aged compost, you shouldn’t need to add fertilizer. If you do wish to boost your soil fertility, opt for an all-natural, slow-release fertilizer.
- Pest control: When in bloom, Cuban oregano’s tiny flowers can attract pollinators. Otherwise, this plant seldom draws the attention of insect pests. If grown indoors as a houseplant, it is possible for it to attract spider mites. You can manage large infestations with neem oil.
Can you overwinter Cuban oregano plants?
Provided your low temperatures don’t fall below 40 degrees, you might be able to treat Cuban oregano as a frost-tender perennial zones 9 or 10 through 11. Otherwise, you’ll need to take action in late winter so that you can grow it out in your garden again next season.
While you can place garden plants in containers to overwinter indoors, starting new plants from cuttings or transplanting volunteer plants may be less cumbersome. Take stem cuttings or pot up new volunteer Cuban oregano plants at about the same time that you might start cold-weather veggies for your fall garden. Nurture these indoors over the winter and you’ll have healthy new plants to set out when the warm weather returns.
Harvesting Cuban oregano
To harvest Cuban oregano, just pinch off a few healthy leaves. If you need larger quantities of the herb, you should be able to snip off two to three inches of stem length from mature plants without damaging them. (In fact, doing so can encourage more compact, bushy growth overall.)
Tips for cooking and using Cuban oregano
Cuban oregano makes a versatile and unique addition in the kitchen and the kitchen garden. With good reason it has found its way into kitchens around the world. The herb is robust enough to hold its own with meats, including poultry, beef, and lamb for which it’s a staple in some marinade and stuffing recipes. It’s also used to make jerk seasoning and adds flavor to soups and stews.
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