Hyssop

Plant: Hyssop
Botanical Name: Hyssopus officinalis (LINN.); FAMILY: N.O. Labiant

Synonyms, Country Names: Middle English ysope.

Symbolic: The name hyssop and Hyssopus come from a Semitic word for a different herb. Officinalis means “from the storeroom”, that is the druggist’s storeroom.

Quotations: Virtue! a fig! ’tis in ourselves that we are thus, or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions; but we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts, whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect or scion.

Iago: Othello I, iii, lines 332.

Cultivation: Hyssop is a member of the mint family, growing 1 to 3 feet high with square stem, linear leaves and flowers in whorls, six- to fifteen-flowered. Plants are evergreen where winters are mild. It is a native of Southern Europe and Eurasia and is not indigenous to Britain. There are three varieties, known respectively by their blue, red and white flowers, which are in bloom from June to October. It may be propagated by seeds, sown in March or April or in the fall for germination the following spring, or by dividing the plants in spring and autumn, or by cuttings, made in spring and inserted in a shady situation. Hyssop may self-seed. They succeed best in a warm aspect and in a light rather dry alkaline soil. Full sun is best, but light shade will do. They require hard pruning in the spring to encourage new growth, but do not need much further attention.

The Useful Plant: Medicinal actions and uses: Hyssop has been used medicinally for centuries to treat a whole gamut of ailments, from falling sickness (epilepsy) to snakebite. Modern practitioners of herbal medicine prescribe hyssop teas for respiratory illnesses to loosen phlegm, induce sweating, relieve intestinal gas, and combat rheumatism; the green tops boiled in soup have been used in the treatment of asthma. Infusions and poultices have been used externally to relieve muscular achies and black-and-blue marks. Research has confirmed that hyssop is soothing to mucous membrances, and that it has expectorant qualities. Extracts have shown antiviral activities.
Culinary uses: Hyssop had more culinary uses in days gone by than it does today. Medieval monks made soups and sauces with it. Try small quantities of the chopped fresh leaves or flowers in broths or sprinkled in salad. Hyssop honey, by contract, is sweet-smelling and delicious. Today the oil is used in liqueurs and is a constituent of Chartreuse and Benedictine.
The oil is also used in perfumery. In the Middle Ages, hyssop tops were strewn on floors to mask bad smells. We can add the dried leaves with their clean aroma to potpourri, sachets for the linen closet, and laundry rinse water.
Old time hyssop tea: Influse ¼ ounce of dried hyssop flowers in a pint of boiling water for ten minutes and sweeten with honey and take a wineglassful three times a day, for “debility of the chest”. It is also considered “a powerful vermifluge” (a medicine that expels intestinal worms). (Old Cookery Book)
Electuary (a drug mixed with honey or sugar and water to make a paste suitable for oral administration): Boil honey with hyssop, strain, reboil with aniseed, pepper, ginger, and pulverized roots of licorice, angelica and elecampane – good for “straightness at the stomach or shortness of breath.”
This plant was held in high esteem in Shakespeare’s time. Spenser spoke of it as “Sharp Isope good for green wound remedies.”
John Parkinson (1567 – 1650), a creator of the Elizabethan flower garden, recommends hyssop, along with thrift, germander and dwarf French or Dutch Box for the borders of knot gardens.

Folklore: Some European women are said to sniff hyssop flowers pressed in their psalm books to help them stay awake during church services. (People perceive the odor of hyssop differently. It has been described variously as sweet, not sweet, skunky but not unpleasant, clean and aromatic with a hint of turpentine, medicinal, and minty/camphorous.)
In the “language of flowers”, hyssop symbolized cleanliness and sacrifice, and it has been used since ancient times for ritual cleaning of holy places. The hyssop referred to in the Bible, however, was most likely some other plant.
Legend has it that beekeepers rubbed their hives with hyssop and other herbs to encourage bees to stay. It also attracts hummingbirds and butterflies; claims that it keeps cabbage butterflies away from crops or repels flea beetles have not been substantiated.

Personal: Carol Mellinger
February 2015