Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)

Hyssop is a very pretty aromatic herb that was once widely used in Europe as a kitchen spice, medicinal plant, and strewing herb. A member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), it is a compact, bushy perennial that prefers sandy, well-drained soil and a bright location. Hyssop needs only a minimal amount of water, is winter-hardy and resistant to most pests and diseases, and doesn't require much more care than the occasional trimming. It is easily propagated by seed, stem cutting, or division of older plants, and a fully-grown plant can reach a height of up to two feet (60 cm) tall. Similar in appearance to lavender, hyssop has long square stems with narrow, dark-green leaves and will also grow beautiful blue-purple flowers during the late summer, which attract both bees and butterflies. There are white and pink varieties as well, but these are somewhat less common.

Although popular in ancient times, hyssop is not frequently used as cooking herb now, because it is very bitter and loses most of its aroma when dried. Still, if used very sparingly and from fresh cuttings, it can work well in meat dishes and stews or in salads as a garnish. Traditionally, though, this plant has been valued less for its usefulness in the kitchen and more for its medicinal properties. Although the Hyssop mentioned in the Bible is likely not H. officinalis, it has been cultivated for at least six hundred years and is still common as an ingredient in household remedies for all sorts of ailments. Compresses made of crushed leaves and flowers have been used to help heal minor cuts, scrapes, and insect bites, and hyssop tea is used to clear up congestion associated with respiratory problems. Additionally, it has been used as a tonic for stomach problems, as a treatment for rheumatism, as a remedy for nervousness and hysteria, and as a diuretic (among other uses).

The healing properties of hyssop are not just old wives' tales. Chemical analysis of essential oil distilled from the leaves and flowers of H. officinalis have revealed that it contains several compounds that have beneficial properties. Marrubiin, a terpene, is a strong expectorant, which explains the herb's usefulness as a cold and flu remedy. Several other terpene structures contained in the volatile oil (such as pinene and camphene, as well as linalool, a monoterpene alcohol) have antibacterial properties, which could account for the passage in Psalms 51:7 referring to hyssop as a cleansing agent.

Another possible benefit of hyssop is the antiviral action of a particular polysaccharide, MAR-10, found in a variety of hyssop cultivated in China. Hyssop compresses have long been used as a treatment for cold sores, but it is now known that MAR-10 suppresses the activity of both the herpes simplex and HIV viruses. However, no studies have been conducted on humans and it is unknown whether it will be of any use as a treatment for HIV or AIDS.

While hyssop is not considered dangerous when consumed in small amounts fresh or dried, the essential oil should never be ingested in quantities of more than a couple of drops, and preferably not at all. The reason for this is that the volatile oils contain the ketones pinocamphone and isopinocamphone, which can cause seizures and miscarriages when taken in excess. Although the convulsant properties of hyssop have traditionally been used to induce menstruation and abortion, it is recommended that pregnant women and people with epilepsy or hypertension avoid the herb. Additionally, pinocamphone accumulates in the bloodstream, so long-term use of any kind should also be avoided.

Despite these precautions, hyssop has been an herb that people have relied on for many different uses throughout history. These days, the essential oil is pressed commercially and sold for medicinal purposes and to the perfume industry. Hyssop oil is also used to flavor the French liqueur Chartreuse. Although it may not be a cure-all, this plant is definitely deserves a place in modern-day gardens, if only for the sweet-smelling flowers.

This writeup was compiled using articles from the Agricola online database and other random sources, including my economic botany textbook. Comments, etc: /msg me.