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A case for growing the humble oregano in every urban garden

The pandemic made Roselynn Jane Villa pause her gardening activities, but her oregano plant survived, ushering in the ‘reopening’ of her garden.

By Roselynn Jane C. Villa

The pandemic made me pause my gardening activities but the oregano survived and today it is ushering in the ‘reopening’ of my garden.

I started allotting a small space in our balcony to start an urban garden back in 2016. I said I wanted some fresh herbs within arms length whenever I would need some for drinks and the occasional pasta.

Villa initially began cultivating plants in her rooftop garden in 2016 so she could have access to fresh herbs for drinks and pasta.

My first herb plants were the rosemary, Italian oregano, Swiss mint, lemon balm, and stevia seedlings that I got from the Legazpi Sunday Market. I called them the Fellowship of the Herbs. About two weeks later, my friend would give me a cutting of native oregano and I would launch into a research of how that differed from the Italian oregano.

The original Fellowship all died before their time. Every year, I would add new plants to my garden – tomatoes, jalapenos, different basil and mint varieties, insulin, kamias, citrus seedlings, and many others, to see what would grow in this part of Manila. I would have success in growing and harvesting jalapenos, but not in other fruiting plants like eggplants, tomatoes, beans, and peas. Basil would grow enough to be used in cooking and baking, but I didn’t have much success with mints and other

The pandemic made Roselynn Jane Villa pause her gardening activities, but her oregano plant survived, ushering in the ‘reopening’ of her garden.

herbs.

 

And when lockdown happened, I slowly lost the will to take care of the garden. I abandoned it for many months, and left my plants to die. When some plants got sick, I got even more discouraged and did not want anything to do with them.

In August 2021, I somehow got fresh wind to start again. The original native oregano, which I planted in a small windowsill pot, was somehow still alive. Its main stem had gotten woody, but it had new stems with new leaves and even flowers! I made a cutting and rooted it in water even though it can grow by directly sticking the stem into the soil.

That which we call oregano comes with many names. From Handy Pocket Guide to Tropical Herbs & Spices, a book I got in the airport in Kota Kinabalu, I found that its name was Indian borage because it was thought to be native to India, and is not the same family as the Italian Oregano at all. It is called Daun bangun-bangun in Malaysia, Daun kucing and daun kambing in Indonesia, five-in-one in Australia, and broad-leaf thyme in the West Indies. Google searches will also say it’s Cuban oregano or Mexican mint. I’ve always called it Cuban oregano until I got this book and I’ve been referring to it as Indian borage ever since.

Villa’s oregano turned out to be Indian borage, which is different from the more familiar Italian oregano.

As of this writing, I have nine new pots of Indian borage apart from the original one, with five cuttings rooting in water while I decide what to do with them. It has been and continues to be my most recommended starter plant for any plaunts and pluncles, newbie or seasoned. Let me count the whys:

  1. As my story shows, it’s a death-defying plant. It refused to die even after many months without water.
  2. It is commitment friendly. Growing a garden is like settling down and being responsible for so many lives. You can’t travel on a whim and not make arrangements for its care. But, the Indian borage waited ever so patiently for me to be ready to take care of it again.
  3. It’s a great addition to an apothecary garden, as the leaves and even the stem is suitable to make tea to soothe a sore throat. And we need throat soothers at this time.
  4. I just learned it can be made into a pesto, using the exact same recipe as the basil pesto, and just substituting the borage leaves for the basil. I wanted a more versatile, unflavored paste, so I just blended my recent harvest of 300g of leaves in two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and put it in the fridge.

    Oregano can be substituted for basil for a different take on pesto.

  5. I found an online recipe for Cuban sofrito, which called for the sauteeing of chopped onion, garlic, bell pepper, bay leaves, cumin, salt and pepper, and a few borage leaves, then simmering in chopped tomatoes and tomato sauce. It went so well with the egg-chicken frittata my mom made, and the recipe said it serves as a good side dish for rice, sweet potatoes, beans, and any meat dish.
  6. I crushed a few leaves in a tablespoon of calamansi juice in a shaker, strained and poured it over a glass filled with ice, and filled it with water for a refreshing infused water. I think I’m going to use soda water next time and turn it into a soft drink. Nobody’s stopping me from adding a splash of gin to the drink either!
  7. It lends a nice flavor to tomato-based pasta as well, in place of basil.
  8. I crush some leaves and rub them on my skin to ward off mosquitoes, and they’re quite effective, too.

    Oregano can be easily propagated by placing a cutting in water.

  9. Best of all, the Indian borage is the only plant in my garden that does not get sick or infested by pests. One day my gardening mood will go back to normal and I will want to take care of sensitive plants again. In the meantime, the Indian borage is just here, happy to be left alone, but so ready to be tinkered with and nurtured as well.

Photos by Roselynn Jane C. Villa

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