Hyssop or Hyssopus officinalis is a bright, semi-evergreen, bushy shrub from the mint family. It originated in Europe and the Middle East. The plant can survive temperatures as low as -20 degrees Celsius, making it hard enough to flourish in many places around the world. It has a variety of purposes, particularly for food and medicine. The use of hyssop dates back thousands of years, and the plant was even mentioned in the bible.
Hyssop is a compact shrub with linear leaves. In the summer and early autumn, it blossoms, usually with blue flowers, though they may also be white or pink. These flowers become small, rectangular-shaped fruit in the fall. The bush reaches one and a half feet in height and can spread up to three feet across.
The Scent of Hyssop
A member of the mint family, hyssop has a rich smell. Some describe its scent as warm and sweet and similar to camphor. Others describe it as skunky, minty, or even smelling of turpentine. Folklore says women in Europe sniff the flowers of the plant to keep them awake in church.
How Hyssop is Grown and Harvested
Hyssop is grown in alkaline soil in dry and warm climates. It also survives in sandy or chalky soil. Though sunny conditions are ideal, hyssop is hardy enough to handle a range of conditions. Hyssop is best harvested at the end of spring and autumn. The stalks are dried for six days, after which the leaves and flowers are cut up into small pieces.
Growing Your Own Hyssop
If you decide to grow hyssop, prune the plant around the middle of spring. It tends to be resistant to disease, although it is prone to leafhoppers, a pest that sucks sap from plants. Hyssop can be grown in many types of gardens and will do best with full sun.
Hyssop extract is an essential oil many belief has antiseptic and other potentially helpful properties. The oil can be inhaled and used topically on the skin in soap, or in compresses. Because hyssop is a central nervous system stimulator, it must be used with care and has been found to cause seizures in high doses, in some individuals.
Hyssop as a Medicine
Hyssop is used medicinally for a range of ailments. Studies show it has potential as an antioxidant and may possess antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. The plant is often used for treating colds and coughs, as well as asthma and respiratory problems. It can also help treat fever, digestive issues, and anxiety.
Hyssop in Cooking
Hyssop has quite an intense and sometimes bitter flavor, a taste some people make use of in cooking. The herb is sometimes used in za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice. It can also be chopped and used as a herb in salads or to flavor stews and soups. The liqueur Chartreuse contains hyssop, and it flavors other alcoholic drinks as well.
The History of Hyssop
Hyssop originated in Southern Europe but has been naturalized in other countries around the world, including the United States, as a result of its hardy nature and various uses. The Bible mentions hyssop multiple times, and records show the ancient Greeks and Romans used it as well. The plant arrived in Britain in the late 1500s, brought by a doctor who made medicine.
Hyssop and Insects
Bees love hyssop; it is rich in pollen and nectar, which help produce high-quality honey. Similar to lavender, hyssop is a useful plant for attracting bees both in wild areas and in gardens. The plant also appeals to the white butterfly, a pest that can damage cabbage and broccoli, so it is best not to plant nearby these cruciferous vegetables.
Side Effects and Safety of Hyssop
Hyssop is usually safe in the amounts used in food and medicines. However, doctors often advise pregnantly and breastfeeding women to steer clear of the plant as a precaution, though there is little evidence supporting hyssop’s negative effects on breastfeeding. Some evidence suggests hyssop may cause or increase the chance of miscarriage. It is also reported to have caused seizures in children with a history of this symptom.