What is Hyssop?
Hyssop is best known by its reference as a Biblical herb, where its ancient use as a cleansing herb is alluded to in the Scriptures: ‘Purge me with Hyssop, and I shall be clean.’
Hypocrates was one of the first to recommend Hyssop for bronchitis. Since his time, folk uses for the herb expanded from coughs and colds to include hoarseness, fever, sore throat, pulmonary disease and herpes. Beyerl states in a A Compendium of Herbal Magick, “There is probably no herbe better suited for the physical cleansing and washing of one’s temple, ritual tools or even ritual robes…Hyssop also makes a superior bathing herbe, bringing purification to the spiritual, emotional and physical selves.”
Hyssop is a semievergreen shrub that grows one to two feet high, producing narrow leaves and clusters of double-lipped flowers. Depending on the species, the flowers range in colour from white to purple, pink, blue, or bluish-purple.
Native to southern Europe, hyssop grows freely in the Mediterranean countries, especially the Balkans and Turkey.
The narrow, dark green leaves of hyssop have a minty aroma and a strong, bitter taste that is penetrating and persistent. The small purple-blue flowers occasionally appearing in pink or white. The white have the same flavor but are somewhat milder.
The American plant called anise hyssop, Agastache fornieulu, is botanically unrelated to hyssop. Its pointed leaves and purple flowers smell and taste of anise and produce a flavorful tisane. They may be used fresh or dried in place of anise seed in any recipe.
Culinary Uses of Hyssop
Hyssop is a favorite of the makers of bitters, digestives and liqueurs (Absinthe, Benedictine and Chartreuse), but many people find it too pungent to use much in cooking. Use this herb sparingly; it can easily overpower the other flavors in a dish. Only two or three leaves or flowers suffice for an individual serving of green salad.
But a little hyssop can be a pleasant surprise in simple fruit dishes such as compotes or stewed prunes. It will add a great deal of interest to a peach cobbler, which might otherwise be sweet and mellow but not much more. Just sprinkle a scant teaspoon of ground dried hyssop, or twice as much of the finely chopped fresh leaves, under the crust.
A pinch of the herb is good in pea soup and in lentil and mushroom dishes. Sausages, pâtés, and meaty stews are often seasoned with this robust herb. A little hyssop will anchor the flavor of a savory fruit sauce for duck, goose, or turkey. In Israel. hyssop is sometimes used in place of thyme to make za’atar.
It is debated whether today’s hyssop is the same as the herb mentioned by that name in the Bible, and the matter is unlikely to be settled definitively.
It tastes so good with fish that in parts of Panama the leaves are fed to live, stocked fish, which then acquire the flavor of the herb.
Health Benefits of Hyssop
Hyssop is used in essentially the same way as sage, with which it is sometimes combined to make a gargle for sore throats. Hyssop tea can be used for poor digestion, for breast and lung problems, to expel worms, and relieve fever sores (fever blisters). Its strong volatile oils are effective for indigestion, gas, bloating, and colic.
Hyssop is used mainly to relieve coughs and airway congestion – it is used with horehound for bronchitis and asthma, coughs due to colds, nose and throat infections and consumption. The odor of hyssop is reminiscent of camphor (it will repel moths and other insects).
The herb encourages mucous production while, at the same time, stimulates expectoration, making it invaluable in upper respiratory congestions that requires clearing the airway of congested phlegm. However, since it can irritate the mucous membranes, it is best to use it after the infection has peaked when the herb’s tonic action encourages a general recovery. Hyssop can be used to help heal minor burns, bruises, and skin sores.
By moistening the leaves and flowers, they can be placed directly on the skin or between layers of cheesecloth to make a poultice. Infusions can also be used topically, as a wash, on these conditions. To make: Place two teaspoons of dried hyssop into boiling water and steep for fifteen to twenty minutes. When cool, strain. Soak a clean cotton cloth in the solution and then place on the affected area as needed. Experimentally, extracts are useful against herpes simplex. Effective on insect stings and bites, kills body lice.
The seeds are sown in spring and the seedlings planted out 40-50 cm apart. Hyssop can also be propagated from heel cuttings or root division in spring or autumn.
Hyssop should be grown on well drained soil with full sun but it will accept some light shade. It is short-lived, and the plants will need to be replaced every few years. Prune back severely in winter or early spring. It is often planted as a companion to cabbage (deters the cabbage moth) and grapes. Keep away from radishes.
Hyssop leaves can be preserved by drying. Harvest hyssop by cutting the stems just before the flowers being to open, usually around August. Harvest only the green plant parts that are not woody. They should be harvested on a dry day at the peak of their maturity and the concentration of active ingredients is highest. They should be dried quickly, away from bright sunlight in order to preserve their aromatic ingredients and prevent oxidation of other chemicals. Good air circulation is required, such as an airing cupboard with the door left open, or a sunny room, aiming for a temperature of 20-32°C.
Hyssop leaves should dry out in about six days, any longer and they will begin to discolour and lose their flavour. The dried leaves are stored in clean, dry, labelled airtight containers, and will keep for 12-18 months.
Garden hyssop, Yssop, Hyssop Herb, Isopo, Ysopo
Hyssopus officinalis Family: Labiatae