Southwest gardeners aren’t picky in what we want from our shrubs. All we ask for is a plant that is drought tolerant, blooms from late spring through fall, isn’t an aggressive spreader, and produces nectar for pollinating insects. Being an herb gardener, I also want it to be edible. Too much to ask for? Not really.
Behold the native plant every Southwest gardener should have – Mexican oregano (Poliomintha longiflora). This is a hardy shrub native to the high desert of northeastern Mexico. This perennial grows to three feet in ideal conditions. In my Fort Worth garden, however, it is exposed to frequent winds and rarely rises above two feet.
Mexican Oregano in the Garden
In early spring, Mexican oregano begins sending up vertical shoots with inch-long leaves. The foliage starts as light green, and then slowly darkens almost to a blue-green. By Memorial Day flowers begin to appear. The inch-long tubular flowers also shift colors, starting out white but gradually changing from white to pink to lavender. I love the kaleidoscope effect you get from it as the flowers mature at different times.
Plant this native herb in a sunny to partly shady location with good drainage. Water weekly for the first eight weeks. In a xeriscape garden it will need water about once every 10 days. After that, Mexican oregano will be drought tolerant.
In late fall as the temperatures drop toward freezing, Mexican oregano will stop blooming and shed its leaves. It will survive winters as far north as the southern edges of Zone 7. When winter is past, trim the bare branches to remove dead sections and shape to fit its space.
When you shop for Mexican oregano, look closely at the leaves. There is another plant, Lippia graveolens, that goes by the same common name. This other Mexican oregano has dark, rough-textured leaves that look much like verbena leaves. The Mexican oregano I’m recommending has medium green ovate leaves with smooth edges.
Mexican Oregano in the Kitchen
In the kitchen, Mexican oregano leaves can be used in the same way you would use garden oregano (Origanum vulgare). The leaves add a spicy zip to home-made salsa or pico de gallo. Try adding it to your next chicken marinade or spice rub mix. Keep in mind, though, that Mexican oregano has a slightly hotter flavor. For every teaspoon of fresh garden oregano called for in a recipe, start with about a half teaspoon of Mexican oregano and work up from there.
So for an all-around superstar native, grow Mexican oregano this year. Its flowers will delight your eyes and its leaves will enliven your meals.