Herbs are a great way to ease into gardening; they’re simple to grow and are durable plants. Here in Baja Arizona, there are a number of attractive native plants that have been used to flavor food for thousands of years. An easy one to start with is Mexican oregano or Aloysia wrightii.
Aloysias are graceful, vase-shaped, subtropical shrubs that are right at home in any xeriscape. Flowering throughout the warm season, from April into October, their fragrant blooms attract butterflies and native bees. As temperatures dip below 25º, aloysias lose their leaves, so ideally plant them in the background of your landscape.
Choose your Mexican oregano from one of these three species. White flowered Aloysia wrightii, also called Wright’s bee bush or oreganillo, reaches around five feet tall. From the canyons of the Rincon Mountains, this species is the most cold tolerant. Reaching around eight feet in height, also with white flowers, Aloysia lycioides, also called beebush, is from warmer canyons in Sonora. Schultz’s beebush (A. lycioides var. schultzii) offers pale lavender blooms.
Aloysias do best in well-drained, not clay soil. Amend clay soils with a blend of compost and sand. Aloysias thrive in filtered shade or part shade, especially on summer afternoons in a hot urban environment. Although Aloysias can survive on rainfall alone, they’re usually found growing along washes where they get extra water. In a densely planted urban environment, water once a week in summer for best bloom and foliage; no water needed during winter dormancy.
This desert native does not require fertilizer. If desired, a flowering fertilizer or “bloom food,” can be applied once a month in the warm season. In the winter, Aloysias can freeze to the ground at 15º, but often come back from the roots. Aloysia leaves can be used fresh but may taste bitter. Drying eliminates bitter flavor.
I dry all my herbs in large terra cotta plant-pot saucers. Harvest anytime, selecting leafy branches and twigs. Rinse, pat dry, and strip leaves to lay one layer deep in the saucer. Dry out of direct sunlight. Once dry, you can use just like dried oregano, but cook with less at first because homegrown and freshly dried herbs have stronger, richer flavors than store-bought.
Not only can you enjoy the amazing Aloysias for their fragrant, pollinator-attracting blooms, it is also delightful to enjoy your own homegrown Mexican oregano in your food. ✜
Jacqueline Soule is an award-winning Southwest garden writer. Aloysias and other native herbs are discussed in her book, Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today (2011).