Cuban oregano or plectranthus amboinicus is an herbaceous tropical plant thought to have originated in India. This herb has traditional medicinal uses in Asian cultures, and is a culinary herb that rivals oregano and thyme for its robust, aromatic, similarity of flavor.
This perennial herb, known as Cuban oregano or Spanish thyme, has a similar taste and aroma to its namesakes, but is related to neither and is actually a member of the Lamiaceae or mint family. This herb has culinary uses, predominantly, in the cuisines of Cuba, India and the Philippines. The Leaves of Cuban oregano are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties and are traditionally used in the ancient Ayurvedic medicine of India.
As with many plants, the botanical name of this herb plectranthus amboinicus gives us an indication as to its place of identification. In this case amboinicus refers to Ambon, a mountainous, fertile island located in the Maluku Islands near Indonesia. From there the plants propagation spread throughout the East Indies, Africa, and was eventually naturalized in Latin America by the Spanish, who named this herb 'oregano de la Hoja Ancha‘. Cuban oregano can still be found growing wild in the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia, and because it is easy to grow, and can survive considerable neglect, it is a popular house plant found worldwide.
Cuban oregano is one of 350 plant species, of the Plectranthus genus, mostly grown as ornamental house plants. This herb has velvety textured leaves and small lavender flowers in spring and summer. Varieties to look out for, for the herb or kitchen garden include; Marble, Golden Ruffles, Silver Shield, Well-Sweep Wedgewood, and also attractive variegated types.
Culinary Uses: In India, Cuban oregano is known as Indian borage and because of its strong aromatic flavor is often used in fish curries and mutton dishes. Because the taste of this herb is considered similar to oregano; thyme, sage or the spice ajowan or ajowan caraway, it is interchangeable with those herbs. In fact, some store bought brands of ground oregano (Origanum vulgare) or spice blends might also contain Cuban oregano; look for “oregano flavored” as a clue.
In the West Indies this herb is dried and added to some jerk seasoning blends, and in Cuba it is added to black beans or frijoles negros, and also salsa’s. In Japan the leaves are prepared and cooked like spinach.
Medicinal Uses: In Singapore and China this herb is called dao shou xiang, which roughly translates as “makes the hands fragrant”. It is grown as a potherb and primarily valued for its benefits as an ingredient in medicinal tea. Plectranthus amboinicus is thought to help soothe digestion, relax spasms, and it has antibiotic, expectorant and laxative effects. The leaf juice is mixed with sugar and given to children for coughs. In Venezuela this herb is taken to expel kidney stones, and in Curacao and Aruba it’s taken to relieve headaches.
One closely related species called Plectranthus tomentosa is also called the Vicks salve plant because when the leaves are crushed they emit a strong camphor-like aroma.
Nutrition: Cuban oregano or Plectranthus amboinicus is a source of vitamin's C, A and E; also minerals and phosphates. This herb is also known as Mexican mint, Mexican thyme, oregano brujo and broad leaf thyme.
- Plants of the Plectranthus genus contain a diterpene called forskolin. Forskolin, (primarily from the herb Indian coleus) has been developed into a drug which combined with the drug rolipram is used to treat heart disease, colon cancer and glaucoma. In recent years forskolin has also been touted as a weight loss aid.
- Other compounds identified in the herb have demonstrated anti-inflammatory effects that may be useful in the development of treatments for inflammatory diseases, particularly rheumatoid arthritis.
- Cuban oregano leaves also contains volatile oils which have two compounds of particular interest called thymol and carvacrol. Both natural compounds have antibacterial and antifungal properties, and were ingredients originally used in the mouthwash Listerine and also Gold Bond Powder.
Primary image, Plectranthus amboinicus. Image credit, flickr.com.
'Variegated' Cuban oregano variety with small lavender flowers. Image credit, commons.wikimedia.org.