Cuban Oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus)
Indian Borage, Mexican Mint, Mexican Thyme, Oregano Brujo, Spanish Thyme, Country Borage, French Thyme, Indian Mint, Soup Mint
About This Plant
Cuban Oregano is neither Cuban, nor Oregano, but rather a sprawling semi-succulent plant with fleshy leaves and stems in the Coleus genus that is part of the larger Mint family. It is only a distant cousin to common culinary Oregano (Origanum vulgare) but has a similar taste and smell. It’s a tropical and subtropical perennial plant, hardy only in USDA zones 10 and 11. Anywhere else, it will have to overwinter indoors, which it can easily do. It is commonly found growing in the coastal regions of the Caribbean, around the Indian Ocean, Africa, and Southeast Asia and is a mainstay of both the kitchen and herbal apothecaries in those regions.
This juicy, frost-tender plant tends to be about 12-18” tall and grows horizontally, trailing along the ground up to several feet in all directions, forming a mounded ground cover. It thrives in rocky, loamy, or sandy areas, especially at lower elevations. Its foliage is bright green or gray-green in color with a frosty appearance due to the presence of a thick layer of velvety, fuzzy hair. Like its Mint relatives, the leaves form in opposite pairs and are about 2-2 ½” long and 1 ½-2” wide. The leaves have notched or scalloped margins. One common variety is variegated with bright green leaves bordered in white along the margins. Its stems are fleshy and delicate, easily snapped when moved roughly, and trail along the ground up to three feet. The younger stems are covered with hairs while older stems are smooth. Cuban Oregano blooms in its tropical locales from late Winter to mid-Spring. The flowers are light blue, light purple, or pink in color, forming on a short stem and measure about one-quarter to one-half of an inch wide. The flowers are popular with bees and butterflies. The seeds are smooth, roundish and flattened, and pale brown in color.
Cuban Oregano is strongly aromatic. Some say it smells like a cross between Oregano, Mint, Sage, and Thyme. Others say its scent is of a very potent Oregano. Others say it also smells like turpentine and camphor. The plant can help to counteract the effects of capsaicin – the chemical compound responsible for the spiciness of Peppers. It can be chewed to calm the burning sensation caused by consuming spicy foods. The fresh leaves can be used to scent laundry and hair. The essential oils in the plant repel insects. The leaves can be rubbed on the skin as a natural insect repellant. Growing Cuban Oregano near other plants can help deter pests. The oils also help soothe bug bites – just crack a leaf open and rub the juices on your skin to soothe itches. The oil is also antifungal and has been found to inhibit the growth of Fusarium, Penicillium, and Aspergillus. Historically, the plant was an essential part of rituals, used for cleansing magic, offerings, and consecrating places of worship.
Cuban Oregano’s scientific name is Coleus amboinicus. Amboinicus refers to Ambon Island in Indonesia where the plant was apparently encountered and described by Joao de Loureiro (1717-1791). It is debated where exactly the plant is native to. Many believe it originates from Southern and Eastern Africa where it grows in woodland or coastal bush, on rocky slopes, and on loamy or sandy flats in the lower elevations. Arab traders brought it to the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia. It was later introduced into Europe and then to the Americas during colonization. Curiously, in Cuba, Cuban Oregano is known as French Oregano. As a type of Coleus, it is considered toxic to cats, dogs, and horses.
Cuban Oregano is easily grown from cuttings. Simply nip a 4-6” section of new growth, strip the bottom few leaves from the stem, and place it in a cup of water. Change the water every day or two and in two to four weeks, you should begin to see roots appear. Once the roots are about an inch long, pot up the cutting. Cuban Oregano can also be grown from seed. Seeds should be sown as soon as they are mature as older seeds quickly lose their viability. Seeds will only germinate when temperatures are between 66 – 75 degrees Fahrenheit, so a heat mat might be useful. Mature plants can also be divided.
Cuban Oregano should be planted about three to six feet apart. Starts should not be transplanted outside until the soil has warmed up in the Spring.
Cuban Oregano, unless being grown in Hawaii or other humid tropical locations is not a full sun plant and requires partial shade. When exposed to full sun, the leaves will burn and the plant will fail to thrive so protecting it from harsh afternoon sunlight is an important factor. Proper drainage is also vital for growth. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings. It is a plant that will thrive in containers and is an all-around fast-growing, low-maintenance plant.
Cuban Oregano can be pruned back quite often to promote a bushier plant. Up to a third of the plant can be cut back at a time with little to no adverse effect. Pruned cuttings can be rerooted or used for cooking or in medicine-making. The plants will need to over-winter indoors in most locales. You can keep your plant going from year to year by taking cuttings in the Fall, placing the cuttings in water (change the water every day or two), potting them once they develop adequate roots by sticking them in a small container of moist soil in a sunny window. This will allow you to use the fresh plant in your cooking all Winter long and you can replant them outside once the soil warms in the Spring.
Cuban Oregano blooms in tropical locations from late Winter to mid Spring. The seeds that form are smooth, roundish and flattened, and pale brown in color. Seeds can be collected as they mature. They lose their viability quickly and should be planted immediately.
- Herb gardens and hanging containers
As a stronger-flavored herb, it’s good to pair Cuban Oregano with other stong-flavored herbs such as Sage or Rosemary. It can be blended with other seasonings in a blender to balance the flavors, such as onion, garlic, celery, carrot, tomato, pepper, oils, vinegars, etc. It can also be added in a blender to make a tangy marinade or salsa. Cuban Oregano is best used fresh rather than dried. Cooking it will help mellow its bold taste. It can be used as a replacement for Sage and used to stuff poultry and meat. It goes well with fish and other meat dishes like game, lamb, and beef. It can be added to soups and stews. You want to use about half the amount you would use if adding true Oregano to your dishes. Cuban Oregano contains vitamin A, vitamin C, and Omega 6.
In Cuba, it is added to “jerk” seasoning blends and is an essential ingredient in bean dishes. In Puerto RIco, its common name is Oregano Brujo (Witch’s Oregano) and used in sofrito. The Vietnamese use it as a flavoring for sweet and sour soup. In India, it’s a main ingredient in chutney and eaten raw on bread and butter. Whole leaves can also be fried for a crisy and flavorful snack. It is even used as a flavoring in some beers and wines. In Indonesia, it is used in soups as a traditional food given to postpartum moms to help induce lactation.
Cuban Oregano has long been used as a traditional medicinal herb in the regions where it grows. In Ayruvedic practice, it has been prescribed as an expectorant, anti-inflammatory, to induce sweating and relieve fevers and as a diuretic. It is considered particularly good for treating sore throats, coughs, colds and nasal congestions. It is also used for treating infections, gas and digestive ailments, and rheumatism. In Haiti, traditional practitioners fry the leaves in an oil, extracting the medicinal properties, and then use the oil as a chest rub for treating bronchitis and other breathing ailments. It is given to nursing mothers to improve breast milk production. It is also used to treat malarial fevers. In the west, it is valued for its antiseptic properties and is used externally for treating abrasions, burns, and conjunctivitis.
The true origin of Cuban Oregano is debated. Some say it is native to the Maluku Islandds in Indonesia where Clove and Nutmeg trees are also native. Others say it is native to Southern and East Africa or possibly India. It has naturalized in many tropical and sub tropical areas of the world, including the coastal regions of countries that border the Indian Ocean.