Herbs: Mexican Oregano; Varieties, Culinary Uses and Nutrition
Mexican oregano is an aromatic herb with a scent and flavor very similar to oregano. This plant is not the same as, or even directly related to, true oregano or Cuban oregano, although the leaves of this herb are cultivated in Mexico and sold as dried oregano in the USA. Mexican oregano is categorized in the Verbenaceae botanical family, and is closely related to lemon verbena (Lippia citriodora).
This herbaceous, perennial, semi evergreen shrub is native to parts of the southwestern United States, where it grows wild in the desserts of southern Texas. In Mexico the leaves of this herb are cultivated in the states of Sonora and Chihuahua. Mexican oregano, botanical name Lippia graveolens, grows wild throughout the hottest and driest parts of Central America. Indeed, this plant is tough and drought resistant preferring sandy soil and plenty of sunlight, hence its alternative name dessert oregano. It doesn’t tolerate frost but can be grown as a container plant in northern temperate regions.
Varieties: The plant genus Lippia numbers over 200 species, most of which bear edible leaves and have culinary as well as medicinal uses. Probably the best known plant variety in this genus is lemon verbena although there are several others which are no less important in terms of their uses.
Dominican oregano, false thyme or false oregano (Lippia micromera) is native to South, Central America and the Caribbean, although it has been naturalized in Hawaii and Florida. Like Mexican oregano, false oregano is preferred by many for cooking purposes as it has a more robust, slightly spicy, oregano flavor. In the West Indies the herb is dried and used to season meats, beans and stews
Said to be the best Lippia species for herbal tea is Lippia alba, also known as bushy lippia, anise verbena or licorice verbena, because of anise-like flavor. Medicinally, tea made from the herb is diaphoretic, meaning it can induce sweating and remove toxins through the skin. In the American tropics the tea is known for its anti-spasmodic effects, to sooth stomach discomfort and also menstrual pain. This herb is known as hierba negra or te del pais in Spanish, although te del pais also refers to Mexican oregano.
Lippia adoensis, is a species native to East Africa and hard to find outside of the continent. The herb is a rich source of the terpene linalool, which gives it its basil like aroma and flavor. L. adoensis features as an herb or spice in Ethiopian cuisine where it is called koseret.
Another species native to Asia, but nowadays found worldwide is Lippia nodiflora. This plant, which was given the curious but jazzy name of turkey tangle frogfruit, in the USA, is a creeping annual from the tropical regions of Asia. The leaves of this plant are used in Chinese and also Indian herbal medicine as a diuretic, for bronchial infections and indigestion. In Pakistan the leaves are used as a traditional antidote for snake and insect bites. Both the leaves and roots are used to treat hepatitis and for abscess.
Culinary Uses: Many cooks prefer Mexican oregano because in contrast to Greek or Turkish oregano (Origanum heraclites) the taste of Mexican oregano is slightly sweeter with a more concentrated and less bitter flavor than true oregano. In Mexico the dried herb is combined with powdered chilies and cumin to make chili powder, which is used as a universal seasoning in Mexican cuisine. Like European oregano, Mexican oregano combines exceptionally well with tomato based dishes of Italian origin, popular in Latin America and the USA. It is used to season sausages or chorizo, bean dishes and stews.
Historically, the Tarahumara or Raramuri Indians of northern Mexico used Mexican oregano as the principle flavoring in their morcilla or black pudding. The Seri Indians of Sonora and theTepehuan people of the northwest also cooked with oregano and valued its medicinal uses.
Nutritional Value: In recent years researchers have discovered that Mexican oregano is one of natures best and most potent sources of flavonoids; valued for their antioxidant effects in human health.
- This herb contains a bioflavonoid called naringenin, also found in orange juice and grapefruit. It’s thought that a diet rich in naringenin helps prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease and possibly Alzheimer’s. An added benefit of naringenin is that it boosts the metabolism which helps prevent obesity, thereby reducing the risk of diabetes and stroke.
- Mexican oregano is also a source of the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, rich flavonoid known as cirsimaritin. In research cirsimaritin was found to have anti-lipogenic enzymes which inhibit the body’s ability to store fat, suggesting this herb, or a cirsimaritin supplements, might help some people to lose weight.
- Two other flavonoids very similar to the bioflavonoid catechin, also found in green tea, and quercitin isolated from Lippia graveolens showed anti-microbial and antiviral activity. Indeed catechin and naringenin, popularly taken as nutritional supplements, may help prevent and or treat hepatitis C according to researchers at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.