By Kathy Conner Cornell
VCE Southside Master Gardener
At a recent Master Gardener meeting, someone brought a bag of Cuban Oregano cuttings for everyone to take home. Since most of the MGs didn’t know anything about it, I decided that maybe I should give an explanation.
This is a variegated variety of Cuban oregano, Plectranthus amboinicus ‘variegatus’. It makes a bright and cheerful houseplant that is useful for culinary purposes.
The name is a misnomer since Cuban Oregano does not originate in Cuba and is not oregano. It does share being in the mint family with oregano however. Sometimes also referred to as Mexican mint, Spanish thyme, and Indian borage, it is none of those things either.
The botanical name is Plectranthus amboinicus and it is in Lamiaceae or mint family. As with many plants, the botanical name of this herb gives us an indication as to its place of identification. In this case amboinicus refers to Ambon, a mountainous, fertile island located in the Maluku Islands near Indonesia. From there the plants propagation spread throughout the East Indies, Africa, and was eventually naturalized in Latin America by the Spanish, who named this herb 'oregano de la Hoja Ancha‘, with Hoja Ancha being a town in Costa Rica. Cuban oregano can still be found growing wild in the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia. It is easy to grow, and can survive considerable neglect.
It is only hardy to zone 10 so must be treated as a house plant. The leaves have a menthol smell when crushed so it is an herb to be used sparingly and only with strong flavored meats. Some call the sister species of Plectranthus tomentosa the Vicks Plant because of its smell. I have found it an easy plant to make happy and I have cut on it for vinegar and in a short time you would never know I used half the foliage. Easy to root in water.
Medicinally the juice of the leaves is prescribed for indigestion, asthma, pains in the area of the heart and stomach, coughs, bronchitis, epilepsy, scurvy and urinary diseases. It also expels gas from the stomach and bowels and relieves a sour stomach.
Some cultures make a mild tea with a couple of leaves and boiling water and often prescribe it for digestive problems, respiratory ailments, and arthritis. It can be made into a syrup with tea and sugar for sore throat and coughs to help ease symptoms. Some gardeners rub Cuban oregano all over the skin for an insect repellant. It is also known for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties. Some have processed the leaves into oil to rub on your chest for a bronchial remedy.
In the Caribbean the fresh leaves are used to season fish and goat. You can use it in an omelet or pasta sauce. It can be chopped in chile pastes to make something like Jerk Seasoning, but without the strong onion and ginger presence. The leaves are the primary seasoning in Cuban black bean soup and Frijoles Negros. The leaves can be minced to add to the various unripe fruits for salsa. In Java and Malaysia, it is used in curries. The leaves are sometimes used to flavor beers and wines in India and you can also brew it as herbal tea. It works well as a marinade for meat or chicken but can also poured over veggies and potatoes or tossed with salad greens. Just go slowly, add a small amount, taste and then add more. It has a robust taste so could easily overwhelm a dish. If nothing else, the bright green leaves make a fragrant and bright house plant.