With its spikes of intense blue flowers and bushy, compact growth, Hyssop is an attractive herb worth growing for its looks alone, although it’s also an important medicinal herb.
The Book of Psalms (51:9) says, “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean.” But hyssop does more than clean. Contemporary herbalists recommend hyssop compresses and poultices for bruises, burns and wounds, and suggest infusions for colds, coughs, bronchitis, flatulence, indigestion, menstruation promotion, and even epileptic seizures.
In 17th-century Europe, hyssop was a popular air freshener or ‘strewing herb.’ At a time when people rarely bathed and farm animals often shared human living quarters, crushed leaves and flowers were scattered around homes to mask odours. When bathing became popular and strewing ceased, hyssop was placed in scent baskets in sickrooms.
It likes a sunny position and light well-drained soil and will grow equally well in pots. The bush grows between 60 – 90cm high, making it’s a good border plant in a mixed flowerbed or as a low growing hedge. An infusion made with the leaves is useful for controlling bacterial plant disease.
If you want bees in your garden, hyssop is a must. It also has the reputation for enhancing the flavour of grapes and increasing the yield of cabbages planted nearby.
I pinch my young plants quite regularly to stimulate a bushy habit. Once I have a nice bush I cut it down to about 10cm once or twice a year. Usually just before flowering time (about September in Pretoria) and then again after flowering time. I usually have to decide on the hyssop’s behalf when flowering should stop, as it just carries on. Normally I would cut back again in March. I use the cut hyssop to make tincture, or if I have enough I will dry it. Remember to store your dried herbs in airtight containers.
Cooking with Hyssop
Hyssop has a strong pleasant aroma of camphor and mint. The taste of the fresh leaves is refreshing but potent, hot (peppery), and bitterish – reminiscent of rosemary, savory, and thyme.
Here’s our page about cooking with hyssop, plus 7 of our favourite hyssop recipes.
Medicinal Uses of Hyssop
As a medicinal herb Hyssop is particularly effective for treating bronchitis and respiratory infections, because of its expectorant action. Both the leaves and flowers can be used, either dried or fresh, in an infusion. The herb’s tonic action also encourages recovery – it supports the liver with its detoxifying duties.
Combine with thyme for bronchial congestion, with peppermint and yarrow for the common cold and lemon balm for cold sores.
It inhibits the growth of the herpes simplex virus, which causes cold sores. I never get cold sores, but an infusion used as a compress, is quite effective for my wife when she’s plagued by cold sores. You have to be snappy though. At the first sign of a tinkling, apply the compress. She gets better results when she combines it with lemon balm, and she takes the infusion internally as well. Even add the leftovers to the bath. Quite nice.
Hyssop has a strong camphor-like smell and tastes bitter. When drinking my infusion (it helps to relieve smokers cough) I add some honey and/or lemon (both also good cough remedies), or I mix it with a beverage herb such as lemon balm. We also make homemade tincture with Hyssop. I would rather stomach one teaspoon of bitter stuff to a whole cup full.
Just for interest. I recently stumbled onto an intriguing possibility. A few laboratory studies have shown that hyssop extract exhibits potent activity against HIV, the ‘virus’ that is linked to AIDS. It’s too early to call hyssop an AIDS treatment, but who knows, it may be used in that capacity in the future.