Origanum dictamnus (Dittany of Crete)

Origanum dictamnus, commonly known as Dittany of Crete or Hop Marjoram,  is a small aromatic herbaceous perennial with a spreading cushion form.

Its arching stems are covered with evergreen woolly silvery leaves and end with hanging clusters of small pink flowers surrounded by overlapping bracts that range in colour from green to red-purple, resembling hops.

Native to the Mediterranean region, specifically to the island of Crete in Greece. 

Unfortunately, its beauty and healing powers have led it to be ruthlessly picked and is now in danger of extinction. It is classified as vulnerable and protected by European law.

Origanum dictamnus plant (Dittany of Crete, Hop Marjoram)

Quick Overview

TYPE

Type herbaceous

HEIGHT & WIDTH

Origanum dictamnus height and width

BLOOM TIME

Origanum dictamnus bloom time

SUNLIGHT

full sun / semi shade

HARDINESS

hardiness (-10ºC / 14º F)

DROUGHT TOLERANCE

drought tolerance aprox 4 months

ORIGIN

Dittany of Crete Scientific name

  • Botanical name: Origanum dictamnus (oh-RI-guh-num dik-TAM-nuhs)
  • Family: Lamiaceae (lay-mee-AY-see-ee)
  • Common name: Dittany of Crete, Hop Marjoram, Wintersweet, Eronda
  • Synonyms: Majorana dictamnus
NameMeaning
OriganumThere are two versions of the origin of the name;
1-  Derives from a combination of two Greek words “oros” meaning mountain and “ganos” meaning joy. So Origanum means “Joy of the mountain”.
2- Derives from the Greek word “origano” meaning bitter, referring to the bitter flavour of these herbs.
dictamnusDerived from “Dikti”, the mountain where the plant is known to grow and ‘thamnos’ meaning “shrub”

How to identify Origanum dictamnus

Origanum dictamnus plant (Dittany of Crete, Hop Marjoram)

Plant

Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) is an aromatic herbaceous perennial that forms a spreading mound.

It is evergreen in milder climates but may lose its foliage during the winter in colder climates or even die completely in very severe climates where it is grown as an annual.

The stems are branched and densely covered with woolly silvery leaves and drooping clusters of inflorescences, rising above the foliage during the summer months.

The height is on average  10 cm (0.3 ft), 20cm (0.6ft) with flower,  and the width is around Width 20 to 40 cm (0.6 to 1.2 ft)

Origanum dictamnus stem (Dittany of Crete, Hop Marjoram)

Stem

The stems are upright to prostrate and arching.

They are hairy, with opposite grey-green leaves at each node.

The flower stems are about 15 to 20 cm (6 to 8 in) tall and much branched with hop-like inflorescences hanging from the slender branches.

Origanum dictamnus leaf (Dittany of Crete, Hop Marjoram)

Leaf

The leaves are aromatic and very hairy, which gives them a velvety appearance and a silver colour.

They are entire, round to oval-shaped and deeply veined.

The leaf is, on average, 1.3 to 2.5 cm (0.5 to 1 in) long.

Origanum dictamnus flower (Dittany of Crete, Hop Marjoram)

Flower

The flower clusters hang in spiky formations, with small pink blossoms peeking through tightly overlapping bracts that look like hops.

The flowers have two lips. The upper lip is notched, and the lower lip has 3 lobes. 

The tubular corollas are surrounded by pale green bracts that change colour to reddish-purple in late summer. 

he bracts are so beautiful and colourful that they are often mistaken for the flower which is very small and almost unnoticeable. Bloom time is usually during summer but may extend from late spring to early autumn.

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Origanum dictamnus Habitat

Dittany of Crete is native to the mountains on the Greek island of Crete where it is seen growing between rock crevices in arid and high mountains ranging from 300 to 1500 meters (1000 to 5000 feet) elevation.

It is well adapted to grow in rocky and dry regions. 

It prefers sunny places but can also be found in shady places where it is often seen.

Origanum dictamnus Usage

Ornamental

Dittany of Crete is a very interesting addition to any garden due to its velvety soft silvery leaves and colourful hop-like flower heads.

It can be used in the landscape in the following ways:

  1. Borders and Edges: Planted along garden borders or pathways, Dittany of Crete creates an aromatic and visually appealing low-spreading edge.
  2. Rock Gardens: Its ability to thrive in rocky and dry conditions makes it a popular choice for rock gardens, adding both texture and colour in summer.
  3. Container Planting: Dittany of Crete has a spreading growth, making it ideally suited as a “spiller” plant (see Oregano in Pots). 
  4. Xeriscapes: With its drought tolerance, Dittany of Crete is a fitting choice for water-wise landscapes where its ornamental qualities contribute to the overall aesthetic.
  5. Wildlife garden: The small flowers attract pollinators like bees and butterflies, making it a valuable addition to gardens focused on supporting wildlife.

Culinary

Dittany of crete is not a very popular culinary herb worldwide, but in its native land, Crete, its leaves are added to sauces and salads and its flowers are used to make tea.

Dried leaves are used in liqueurs and breads.

Medicinal

Origanum dictamnus has been used since ancient times to treat several health conditions such as stomach aches, rheumatism, respiratory diseases, and kidney and liver problems. Externally it was also used to treat snake bites and wounds.

Research has demonstrated antimicrobial, antioxidant, and antiproliferative properties of O. dictamnus essential oil 

Biodiversity

Dittany of Crete flowers are rich in nectar attracting pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Like other types of Oregano, this plant is a valuable addition to the biodiversity of your garden and is ideal for wildlife gardens.

Cultural reference

In antiquity, people believed the Dittany of Crete plant could pull out arrows and help heal wounds. Because of this, a painting from Pompeii shows Venus giving this special plant to help the doctor remove the arrow from Aeneus and heal his wound.

In antiquity, people believed the Dittany of Crete plant could pull out arrows and help heal wounds. Because of this, a painting from Pompeii shows Venus giving this special plant to help the doctor remove the arrow from Aeneus and heal his wound.

“Wounded Aeneas in Pain”, Roman Fresco from Pompeii, 1st century AD, National Archeological Museum, Naples
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alex-david/50672993338/

In Crete, this plant is called “erontas,” which means “love” in Greek. Stories say that only those who were truly in love, called “erontades”  (meaning “love-seekers”), would bravely climb steep cliffs to gather Dittany’s flowers to give to their loved ones.

How to care for Origanum dictamnus

Cold exposure

This plant can’t handle very cold weather, only tolerating temperatures down to -10ºC (14ºF), but this is possible only if the soil is well drained. Cold and humid soil can be fatal to it. 

Add a thick layer of mulch around the plant’s base to protect the roots from cold temperatures. You should preferably use gravel mulch because organic mulch will stay humid and can cause the plant to rot.

 If you live in a really cold area, it’s a good idea to plant it in a pot that you can bring indoors during winter.

Sun exposure

Dittany of Crete prefers full sun, but it can also do well in partial shade. Actually in its native habitat, in Crete.  it is often seen growing in shady places.

In places with very hot climates or strong sunlight, it can be helpful to protect plants from the afternoon sun to prevent leaf damage. Providing partial shade during the hottest hours of the day can protect the plant from excessive heat and intense sunlight.

Soil

Dittany of Crete prefers well-drained stony, or sandy soils. Avoid planting it in wet areas, as it dislikes soggy soil, which may lead to root rot and fungal diseases.

It prefers alkaline soils but can tolerate mildly acidic soils also.

Watering

Dittany of Crete is drought tolerant and can go for some months without water once it is established (about 4 months of drought if the temperature is not too hot). 

Once established, it usually does not need watering. However, if there’s a long period without rain or very hot weather, you should water it, making sure to let the soil completely dry out before watering again.

During its first year after planting, it’s essential to water the young plant regularly. Depending on the soil and the temperatures you may need to water it once a week, every two weeks or every three weeks. Let the soil completely dry out before rewatering.

When you water the plant, make sure to give it plenty of water, allowing the soil to get a good soak. This way, the water can sink deep into the soil, helping the roots grow deeper as well. With deep roots, the plant can withstand longer dry periods since the lower soil layers stay moist for a longer time.

To preserve the soil´s moisture, you should add mulch around the root area of the plant. 

Pruning

Pruning Dittany of Crete helps maintain its shape and encourages bushier growth.

  • Give it a cleaning prune in early spring. You should cut back the stems that are old, weak or overly crowded. This will allow for better air circulation and light penetration which will promote healthy growth. Prune it down completely if it is overgrown or weak. This will enable new stems to grow from the base.
  • Give it a hard prune (always cutting above a healthy set of leaves)  immediately after the flowering period typically late summer to help maintain its shape and encourage new growth. However, if you like to see the wiry sculptural structure during the winter, wait until early spring to give it the hard rejuvenating prune.

When to plant Origanum dictamnus

The best season to plant is spring or autumn, depending on your climate. Avoid planting during periods of extreme temperatures.

If you live in a location with moderate weather, you should preferably plant during autumn. By doing so, the plant gets a chance to develop its roots during the cooler months before the arrival of summer’s hot temperatures. However, if you encounter severe winters, it’s better to wait until spring when the danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed up, creating a more favourable environment for the plant to thrive.

How to propagate Origanum dictamnus

Dittany of Crete is best propagated by stem cuttings or seeds.

Stem cuttings: Take softwood cuttings in spring before it starts blooming or semi-hardwood cuttings in late summer or early autumn.

  1. Cut the stem just below a leaf node.
  2. Remove the lower leaves, leaving a few pairs of upper leaves intact. 
  3. Plant in a well-draining medium. Keep the medium consistently moist and keep in the shade until rooted.
  4. Once the roots have developed, transplant the rooted cuttings into individual containers and grow in cold frame during the first winter, exposing them to as much sun as possible.

Seeds: Sow seeds in autumn.

  1. Sow the seeds in a well-draining medium. Lightly press the seeds into the surface of the soil without covering them. 
  2. Maintain consistent moisture and provide indirect light. 
  3. Germination typically takes 2-4 weeks. Once the seedlings have grown a few sets of true leaves, transplant them into individual containers and grow in cold frame during the first winter.

A good online source for plant propagation techniques can be found in RHS propagation article.

Sources

Sources of information used for this article

Internet

Article from Missouri Botanical Garden

Article from Kew

Article from Jardin Sec

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