Garden Journal

Cuban oregano has many names and uses

November 14, 2012

Love and gardening are often frustrating, irrational, yet inspiring.  The Cuban songwriter José Fernández wrote of a beautiful woman from Guantanamo who one day brought him a steak sandwich to the radio station where he worked. While eating the sandwich, Jose flirted with another woman.

The woman from Guantanamo snatched the sandwich from him, cursed him and walked out, never to be seen again.  This was the original verse of the ever-popular Cuban folk song “Guantanamera” (“Woman from Guantanamo’).  Because of the easy cadence of the song, it immediately lent itself to impromptu verses and even became a singing social newspaper.

The infamous steak sandwich may have been flavored with leaves of a common Cuban herb with fleshy leaves and a distinctive flavor of oregano and thyme, the so-called Cuban oregano, Plectranthus amboinicus.

The leaves of this attractive herb are pleasantly aromatic, coupled with pale purplish flowers that bloom in dense whorls.  Besides flavoring the errant steak sandwich, Cuban oregano is an excellent addition to stuffings, stews and soups.  It goes well with strong-flavored meats such as venison, pheasant and lamb. The leaves can be steamed and served as a vegetable, which is popular in Southeast Asia.

Cuban oregano leaves are used in traditional medicine to treat sore throats, colds, coughs, nasal congestion, infections, rheumatism and even flatulence.

The home gardener will find Cuban oregano is an easy-to-grow plant that does well in pots and containers.  The leaves look very much like a coleus, and it can be used much the same way.  This is a fairly hardy and carefree herb that tolerates sun and drought. It is, however, frost tender, so if you grow it outdoors, it will die in the fall unless you bring it indoors.

As a houseplant, it does best in bright, indirect light or partial sun. When daylight drops below 12 hours, the plant bursts into bloom, a welcome sight on the winter windowsill.

Unlike some women from Guantanamo, this houseplant isn’t fussy and does well in temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees.

Water your Cuban oregano when the soil surface feels dry to the touch. Do not fertilize this plant while it is flowering in the winter.  Toward spring and throughout the summer you can feed it lightly every two weeks with a good organic liquid fertilizer mixed to half strength.  In the spring, you can repot Cuban oregano into a slightly bigger pot.

You can start Cuban oregano from seeds, cuttings or buy a started plant in a pot. Like most seeds, the perfect temperature for germination is around 70 degrees.  Cuttings root easily in water.

This herb has traveled far and is also known as Spanish thyme, Mexican thyme, Indian borage and broadleaf thyme.  It is a major flavor in Jamaican cuisine.

You can get Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus) by mail from Richters or from any sexy woman from Guantanamo.  Steak sandwich not included.

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