Origanum syriacum (Syrian Oregano)

Origanum syriacum, is a herb known by different names such as Syrian Oregano, Za’atar, Bible Hyssop and Lebanese Oregano.

It´s a highly fragrant, evergreen subshrub with an upright rigid form, densely packed with velvety grey-green leaves. At the tips of the stems, clusters of tiny white flowers are arranged in branching panicles.

Native from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Arabian Peninsula. The three known subspecies are distributed as follows:

  • Origanum syriacum subsp. Syriacum (Syria, Israel, Jordan)
  • Origanum syriacum subsp. bevanii (Cyprus, S. Türkiye to Lebanon)
  • Origanum syriacum subsp. sinaicum (sinai)
Origanum syriacum plant (Syrian Oregano, za'atar, Bible Hyssop, Lebanese Oregano)

Quick Overview

TYPE

HEIGHT & WIDTH

Origanum syriacum height and width

BLOOM TIME

Orifanum majorana bloom time

SUNLIGHT

full sun / semi shade

HARDINESS

hardiness (-8ºC / 17º F)

DROUGHT TOLERANCE

drought tolerance aprox 5 months

ORIGIN

Syrian Oregano Scientific name

  • Botanical name: Origanum syriacum (oh-RI-guh-num seer-ee-AH-kum)
  • Family: Lamiaceae (lay-mee-AY-see-ee)
  • Common name: Syrian Oregano, Zaatar, Bible Hyssop and Lebanese Oregano
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.
syriacumDerived from the Latin word meaning syrian, referring to the plant´s origin.

How to identify Origanum syriacum

Origanum syriacum plant (Syrian Oregano, za'atar, Bible Hyssop, Lebanese Oregano)

Plant

The Syrian Oregano plant (Origanum syriacum) is a highly aromatic subshrub that typically grows into an upright stiff rounded mass. 

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.

It has a dense foliage of velvety grey-green leaves and clusters of small white flowers rising above the foliage.

The height is on average 60 to 80 cm (1 to 2.6 ft) and the width is around 50cm (1.6 ft) 

Origanum syriacum stem (Syrian Oregano, za'atar, Bible Hyssop, Lebanese Oregano)

Stem

The stems are stiff and upright with a green or reddish colour.

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

When in bloom, rounded or cone-shaped clusters of white flowers are arranged in branching panicles at the tip of the stems.

Origanum syriacum leaf (Syrian Oregano, za'atar, Bible Hyssop, Lebanese Oregano)

Leaf

The leaves are very aromatic and hairy which gives them a velvety appearance and a greyish-green colour which becomes more whitish in the Summer.

They are entire, ovate (oval-shaped) to cordate (heart-shaped) and deeply veined.

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

Origanum syriacum flower (Syrian Oregano, za'atar, Bible Hyssop, Lebanese Oregano)

Flower

The flowers are grouped in clusters that can be rounded or shaped like clones. These clusters are arranged in a branching panicle along the stem. 

The tiny white or pale pink flowers have two lips. The upper lip is notched, and the lower lip has 3 lobes. 

The tubular corollas are surrounded by grey-green bracts forming a rounded or cone shape.

Bloom time is usually during summer but may extend from late spring to early autumn.

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Origanum syriacum Habitat

Syrian Oregano is native to the Middle East region, including countries like Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.

It is well adapted to grow in rocky and dry regions. It can be found in various types of habitats, including rocky slopes, forest edges and mountain meadows usually on limestone, with elevations up to 2700 m (8850 ft)

It prefers sunny places but can also be found in partial shade.

Origanum syriacum Usage

Ornamental

Syrian Oregano is a versatile plant that adds a lot of interest to your garden with its lovely velvety grey-grey foliage, its wiry flower panicles and its dense upright shape. 

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

  1. Herb Garden:  Add Syrian Oregano to your herb garden alongside other culinary herbs. Its pleasant aroma and dense velvety foliage make it a great addition.
  2. Borders and Edges: Planted along garden borders or pathways, Syrian Oregano creates an aromatic and visually appealing edge.
  3. Rock Gardens: Its ability to thrive in rocky and dry conditions makes it a popular choice for rock gardens, adding both texture and fragrance.
  4. Container Planting: Syrian Oregano does well in containers, making it suitable for patios and balconies, combining ornamental and culinary value. (for tips on growing in pots check Oregano in pots).
  5. Cottage Gardens: Its charming appearance and fragrant leaves make it a natural fit for cottage gardens’ informal and whimsical style.
  6. Xeriscapes: With its drought tolerance, Syrian Oregano suits water-wise landscapes like xeriscapes, whose ornamental qualities contribute to the overall aesthetic.
  7. Wildlife garden: The small flowers of this Oregano attract pollinators like bees and butterflies, making it a valuable addition to gardens focused on supporting wildlife.

Culinary

Syrian Oregano is considered by some people to be one of the tastiest oregano herbs. It is the main ingredient of the spice mixture called za’atar and this is why the plant itself is also called za’atar.

This herb is very popular in Middle Eastern cuisine and is gaining interest in other parts of the world due to its spicy flavour and strong aroma.

It can be used fresh or dry in dips, soups, salads, stews and roasts.

It is very popular sprinkled on flatbread and pizzas.

The flowers can also be used as seasoning.

Medicinal

Origanum syriacum has been used for many years to treat several health problems such as heart problems, cough, toothache, colds, anxiety and wounds.

Research showed many medicinal properties such as antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer.

Biodiversity

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

Cultural reference

It is believed this plant is the “hyssop” that is mentioned in the bible. It was the herb used to sprinkle lamb’s blood on the Israelites’ doorposts during Passover, used for ceremonial purification and sacrificial purposes.

Why is Origanum syriacum called za’atar?

Origanum syriacum, also known as Syrian oregano has a significant presence in Middle Eastern cuisine and plays a central role in the traditional za’atar spice blend. This connection between the herb and the blend has led to the shared name “za’atar” to refer to both the herb and the spice mix used in cooking.

The name “za’atar” has its origins in the Arabic language and refers to both the wild herb Origanum Syriacum and the spice blend that includes this herb. The term “za’atar” is derived from the Arabic verb “za’atara” which means “to sprinkle” or “to scatter.”

The name is aptly chosen because the spice blend is often sprinkled or scattered to season various dishes. The blend typically includes dried herbs like Syrian oregano, sesame seeds, sumac, and sometimes other spices.

How to care for Origanum syriacum

Cold exposure

This plant can’t handle very cold weather, only tolerating temperatures down to-8ºC (17ºF), and 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. 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

Syrian  Oregano prefers full sun, but it can also do well in partial shade.

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

Syrian Oregano 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 however you should avoid highly acidic soils.

Watering

Syrian Oregano is very drought tolerant and can go for some months without water once it is established (about 5 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 every two to three weeks or more often if the soil is sandy and the weather is very hot. This is because the plant is developing its roots, which are still short and can only reach the shallow parts of the soil that dry out faster. By providing regular watering, you help it establish strong roots that can access deeper soil and better withstand dry conditions in the future.

When you water the plant, 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 longer.

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

Pruning

Pruning Syrian oregano helps maintain its shape and encourages bushier growth.

  • Give it a cleaning prune in early spring. You should cut back the old, weak or overly crowded stems. 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 syriacum

The best season to plant is in 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 syriacum

Syrian oregano 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 provide indirect light. 
  4. Once the roots have developed, transplant the rooted cuttings into individual containers and grow in cold frame during the first winter.

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.

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Sources

Sources of information used for this article

Books

I researched this plant in the Dry Gardening Handbook by Olivier Filippi, which is a fantastic book for anyone interested in dry gardening

cover of Dry gardening bookcover of Dry gardening book

Internet

Article from Missouri Botanical Garden

Article from Kew

Article from Jardin Sec

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