HYSSOP (Hyssopus officinalis)
This is an ancient herb which goes back to biblical time, when it was
considered a cleansing herb-taken internally as a purgative and used
to cleanse temples and lepers. As far back as the seventh century, hyssop
was strewn about the floors of sick rooms and used to improve the smell
Seventh century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper called hyssop "a most
violent purgative" and warned against taking it unless under the
care of an alchemist. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,
tinctures and teas were made of the flowers and leaves to reduce perspiration
and to cure jaundice and dropsy. Hyssop tea has always been recommended
for bronchitis and sore throats. According to Maude Grieve, writing
in A Modern Herbal, it will "improve the tone of a feeble stomach."
A poultice of freshly ground leaves is thought to speed the healing
of wounds and bruises. It will supposedly clear a black eye. One tradition
says that hyssop cleanses wounds received from rusty metal because penicillin
grows on the leaves. However, modern herbalists attribute any germ-killing
power to the volatile oils. An infusion of hyssop is taken as a sedative
expectorant for flu and phlegm. The essential oils are used to treat
cold sores and heal scars. This oil can be hazardous and should be avoided
when epilepsy, high blood pressure, or pregnancy are indicated. Hyssop
is added to potpourri and laundry rinses.
Culinary uses of hyssop include being used as an ingredient in liqueurs,
such as Benedictine and Chartreuse. Hyssop's minty leaves and flowers
are used to flavor green salads, chicken soup, fruit soups, fruit salads,
lamb stew, and poultry stuffing with sage. For a sauce to serve with
cheese omelets or on rice, mince ¼ cup of fresh hyssop and add
to 4 cups of tomato sauce.
Another use for hyssop is as an ingredient in some perfumes. According
to modern herbalist Jeanne Rose, an herbal bath made with hyssop is
soothing and diaphoretic. She recommends mixing it with thyme, mint,
and rosemary for best results. A steaming herbal facial made from hyssop
cleanses the skin.
Hyssop is used in companion planting to distract cabbage butterflies
and, when planted near grape vines, increases their yields.
Hyssop is a bee plant extraordinaire. Butterflies and hummingbirds are
also attracted to its flowers. Beekeepers once rubbed their hives with
hyssop, as well as juniper, fennel, and thyme, in order to encourage
the bees to stay put. It's worth planting near the hive to add flavor
to the honey.
Like most of the mints, hyssop is quite easy to grow and is rarely
bothered by pests or disease. It is such a pretty plant that it deserves
a prominent place in every herb garden. The Elizabethans used it to
edge knot gardens, as they did germander. Clip it frequently, cutting
it to within six inches of the ground, so that growth will be full and
lush. Feed plants with fish emulsion to help them green up after cutting.
Hyssop is a compact perennial. It's a member of the mint family, but
tends not to be as invasive as mint. You can start this plant by seeds,
cuttings, or division. Choose a sunny spot where the soil is well drained,
or even dry. In early spring, sow seeds ¼ inch deep in rows about
a foot apart. In early summer, thin the seedlings to stand a foot apart
in the rows. You can propagate by cuttings or division in the spring
or fall. Hyssop can be grown in plant hardiness zones 4 or 5. It flowers
from June to August. Hyssop is native to Europe and Asia and has become
naturalized throughout North America.
To harvest this herb for medicinal use, cut the stems just before the
flowers begin to open. Hang bunches upside down in a warm, dark place.
Dried leaves, green stems, and flowers can be chopped and stored in
tightly-covered glass containers or tins. Harvest only the green plant
matter, because tough woody parts have much less of the characteristic