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Weekly planter: Cuban oregano fares well in summer gardens

Cuban oregano has a flavor similar to true oregano and looks like coleus.
Cuban oregano has a flavor similar to true oregano and looks like coleus. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

An herb that will grow in South Florida gardens even in summer is Cuban oregano, Plectranthus amboinicus, which is not true oregano but a relation — it is in the same mint family. It’s not Cuban, either — it probably started in Southeast Asia and came to the U.S. through Latin America. Confused? Sometimes it is also called Spanish thyme or Mexican mint or Indian borage.

In the garden, the scent is aromatic. In cooking, the flavor is similar, with a subtle bitterness and maybe a taste of sage or thyme thrown in. It makes a fine substitute for true oregano.

The herb easily roots from cuttings in the spring. It prefers sandy, well-drained soil. Although it will withstand hot summers, it benefits from a little shade.

Cuban oregano is also related to the coleus, and like that ornamental plant it likes to sprawl. Watch its roots so that it doesn’t invade the territory of other plants, or grow it in pots or in concrete blocks that edge the garden. Pinch back its shoots regularly so that it fills in more compactly.

It also may look like coleus. A variegated form, with cream-colored leaf edges, is the most common plant; you can see it at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

The plant is reputed to have medicinal benefits. Rub it on your skin and the fragrance may repel insects. Some people add the leaves to hot tea and say it soothes their throats.

In the kitchen, use it to garnish salads, make syrup to flavor cocktails, or add to soups and stews.