Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis – Labiatae)
The name comes from the Greek, hyssopus, itself derived from the Hebrew ezob, meaning good scented herb. A hardy green bushy plant with narrow dark leaves similar to those of lavender and rosemary, it grows to around 30 – 60 cm (1-2 ft) in height. It originated in southern Europe and was introduced to Britain by the Romans (and then to America by early settlers). It grows wild in France in rocky soil and on old ruins; in Britain it is often found in garden borders or hedges, mixed with rosemary, catmint and lavender. Its beautiful flower tops are usually royal blue, but can be white or pink. The flowers are highly aromatic and attractive to bees and butterflies.
Hyssop, both flowers and leaves, has been highly valued since ancient times for its therapeutic properties, and was one of the bitter herbs mentioned in the Old Testament (used in the Passover ritual). Hippocrates, Galen and Dioscorides favoured its bechic and pectoral properties. In pagan religious ceremonies, hyssop was sprayed on worshippers to purify them. The Romans used it medicinally and culinarily, the latter both for protection against plague and for its aphrodisiac effect in conjunction with ginger,thyme and pepper. Thomas Tusser in 500 Points of Good Husbandry (1573) recommended hyssop as a strewing herb, and by the time of the great herbals of the Middle Ages, the herb was so well known that their writers felt no need to go into too much detail about it.
Hyssop ESSENTIAL OIL
Description: The plant is cultivated for its essential oil in different parts of France, in the regions of Doubs (Jura) and Haute Saone in particular. Hyssop oil has a very aromatic, pleasant odour, and is dark-yellowish.
The principal constituents: Alcohol, geraniol borneol, thuyone phellandrene and, in large quantities, a terpenic ketone, pinocamphone.
Dangers: It is the pinocamphone that can cause the use of the oil to have toxic effects, and hyssop essential oil should not be sold to the public, only prescribed by doctors or reputable aromatherapy practitioners. Much research – by Gad/ac and Meunier (1889), by Dr Leclerc and Professor CauJolle (this century) among others – has proved that the oil can cause epileptic fits if the dosage is not properly respected. It should never be used on sensitive people, as its action on the nervous system can be fatal. Some deaths have been registered in France due to the wrong dosage, and as a result the Ministry of Health has limited its sale to prescription only. I use hyssop oil with enormous care, mainly in combination with other plant essential oils as an inhalation. You can, however, safely use the plant itself.
Hyssop is pectoral, an expectorant, decongestant, stimulant, sudorific and is carminative. It is recommended for coughs, colds, ‘flu, bronchitis, asthma and chronic catarrh. To alleviate the effects of these, pour 1 pint (600 ml) boiling water over 15 g (1 tbsp) of young green tops and flowers of fresh hyssop, infuse for 10 minutes, and take three cups per day between meals.
Hyssop can also be used externally, and one of the recurring recom¬mendations is as a poultice of young bruised leaves on a bruise, cut or wound. Boil 50 g (2 oz) of the young leaves in 600 ml (1 pint) water, let it stand for 15 minutes, then apply with cotton wool on the affected part.
This is also good as a tonic after illness, for flu, coughs, bronchitis and for a gargle when you have a sore throat. Gather the fresh flowers and leaf tops at the end of July, beginning of August
- 100 g (4 oz) flowers and leaf tops
- 1 litre (1 3/4 pints) boiling water
- 1.5 kg (a good 3 ¼ lb) sugar or 1 kg (2 ¼ lb) fructose
Mix together until the sugar has dissolved, then leave to marinate for a few weeks in a dark bottle, well corked, and exposed to the sunlight. Take 2 tsp of the syrup per day, morning and mid-afternoon. (See also depression.)
Despite the warnings about oil, hyssop can be used as a culinary herb, and indeed has been so since the Middle Ages – there is mention of it in old French recipes in poultry and game stuffing, in stews and potages (soups). Its slightly bitter, minty flavour counteracts the fats of some meats and fish, and a few leaves can be scattered in salads. My grand-mother used to serve us a real feast in August when we were little: slices of lightly toasted wholemeal bread were brushed with a garlic clove, covered with buttermilk (you could use fresh yoghurt instead), then sprinkled with a little salt and some finely chopped fresh hyssop leaves.
LEEK AND HYSSOP SOUP Serves 4
An opera singer client swears by this soup, finding its throat proper¬ties invaluable before a performance, or before her strenuous singing practice
- 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
- 2 medium leeks, cleaned and chopped
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
- 600 ml (1 pint) water or goats’ milk
- 15 ml (1 tbsp) olive oil
- A bunch of fresh hyssop, washed and chopped
Boil the vegetables in salted water or milk until just soft. Add the oil and chopped hyssop leaves, stir well and serve warm. (You could add a little milk to the water-based soup if you like.)
Hyssop is one of the ingredients of some eau de colognes, and it is also used in the making of absinthe and vermouth. It can be infused in the rinsing water for linen.