Ounce for ounce, many herbs used to flavor our foods have more antioxidant power than berries, fruits, and vegetables, according to Agricultural Research Service study. The ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Herbs are known to be good sources of antioxidants, but their potency can vary depending on species and growing conditions.
Three different types of oregano — Mexican, Italian and Greek mountain — scored highest in antioxidant activity. Their activity was stronger than that of vitamin E and comparable to the food preservative BHA against fat oxidation. Several other culinary herbs — among them rose geranium, sweet bay, dill, purple amaranth and winter savory, also showed strong antioxidant activity. However, it was about one-half to one-third as potent as that of the oreganos. The medicinal herbs generally scored lower in antioxidant activity, suggesting that their health benefits mostly stem from other functions in the body.
The highest scorer in this study, Mexican oregano (poliomintha longiflora), is used in traditional Mexican and Southwest recipes. Its flavor is a bit stronger than Italian oregano (origanum x majoricum); used to season meats, egg dishes, soups and vegetables. Greek mountain oregano (origanum vulgare ssp.hirtum), had the third highest score.
One of the hardiest, most easily cared for of the popular herbs is oregano. It is an excellent ornamental herb with many applications, from thick borders and fluffy mounds to a dense ground cover of dark green or golden yellow, creeping along low retaining walls, or tucked between the stones in rock walls. Oreganos thrive in sunbaked nooks and crannies, and spread quickly. The flower has a sweet, desirable floral scent and the delicious scent of its foliage reminds one of rich dishes of spaghetti.
The oreganos are a confusing genus, with many common names for each species and other species that vary in size, leaf shape, and flower color. This genus contains the herbs marjoram and oregano. The oreganos like alkaline soils so they should do well in Sheridan. They should be fertilized sparingly or from organic sources to avoid too fast of growth, poor oil quality, or bitter flavor. Oregano is more widely used around the world than any other herb, for its culinary flavor and fragrance.
Most herbs that will grow here are quite hardy, but some can be invasive or take over the garden. So be careful and plant these in contained areas or in planters. By using planters, plants can be brought inside in the fall and enjoyed all winter long. Do not be afraid of using annual herbs in landscape design. They tend to reseed themselves and are not aggressive enough to overtake an area. Most herbs have showy flowers, which can liven up an area.
The other benefits of using herbs in your landscaping design is that the foliage is desired food for many beneficial insect larvae, such as butterflies. Many adult pollinators such as bees use the flowers of these herbs. From an insect standpoint, the more diversity in plants the potential increase in insect numbers goes up. Many herbs, which are high in oils, tend to have very fragrant aromas which to many of us is pleasant.
However for some wildlife such as deer, rabbits and grasshoppers these plants are not palatable (mint, lavender, sage, thyme).
If you are ever in Denver, take the time to visit the Denver Botanical gardens and see the herb garden they have designed; it is quite interesting. Alternatively, if there are closer garden centers which have constructed one it is well worth the time to visit.
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Scott Hininger is with the Sheridan County extension office.