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.
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.
We hope these hyssop recipes and cooking tips will stimulate your imagination. Some of these recipes you will recognize, others might sound too adventurous. Our only intention here is to show you how easy it is to use herbs to relieve boredom in the kitchen.
Please note: As many of our recipes dates from pre-computer days (meaning they are in files and files of hand written notes), I’m not including the ‘authors/creators’ of all these recipes. Because we simply collected recipes for our own purposes, never with the intention of sharing them with a wide audience, we did not always record the source. If I infringe your ‘copyright’ by not giving you credit please accept my apologies and please send me an email.
Parts used: We use the leaves fresh or dried; the flowers only fresh.
When to harvest: The leaves can be harvested at any time during the year. We pick the flowers and young flowering tops as flowering begins.
How to dry: Hang in a warm, dark, well ventilated place.
How to store: Fresh leaves and flowers – In tightly sealed plastic bags or ‘tupperware’ containers in the refrigerator. Dried leaves – In airtight containers in a cool, dark place.
Cooking tips: At first use small amounts of leaves (especially dried) in your dishes as the bitter, slightly minty (or camphor-like if you wish) flavour can easily overpower a dish. As you become used to the flavour you will increase the amounts naturally. We never use both the leaves and flowers to flavour the same dish as the stronger flavour of the leaves dominate that of the delicate flowers. The leaves stand up well to long cooking periods but we prefer to add it just before serving. Experiment a bit to find out what suits your taste buds.
Taste good with/in: Dried or fresh leaves – soups, stews, herbal teas. Fresh leaves – soft cheeses such as goat cheese and cottage cheese, flavoured butters, sandwiches, sauces, dips, hot or cold pasta dishes. Flowers – green salads.
Herb Blends: Mostly used on its own but we often combine it with one or more of the following: chervil (my favourite combo), chives, parsley, bay, basil and sage (especially in fatty dishes, but be careful as both can overpower). Tip: Both hyssop and sage aids digestion of fatty fish and meat.
Historical uses: Hyssop is frequently mentioned in the Bible, from Moses to John the Baptist. It was also venerated by the Arabs. The ancient Greeks boiled it with rue and honey, and used it as a cough remedy. Much used as a medicinal herb. Also used to flavour liqueurs, such as the well known Chartreuse. A wine called hyssopites, made from hyssop was mentioned by the Roman writer Pliny (first century AD).
Glazed Carrots with Hyssop
Here’s one way I can easily convince my dear wife, who’s not too fond of carrots, to eat carrots. She loves chicken though, so its sort of a compromise.
About 500g young carrots, scraped and thinly sliced; 1 cup chicken stock; 1 tbsp honey; 1 tbsp unsalted butter; 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh hyssop leaves; salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste.
In a saucepan, combine the carrots, stock, honey, butter and salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover and cook over low heat until the carrots are tender and the liquid is a syrupy glaze, about 20 minutes or so. Be careful that it does not burn. Toss the carrots with hyssop and serve immediately.
If you don’t want to ‘ruin’ 500g carrots, try this tester: 2 large carrots thinly sliced, 1 tbsp water (or chicken stock), 1 tbsp butter, 1 tsp honey or brown sugar, 1 tsp finely chopped hyssop. Proceed as above. This needs only about 10 minutes to cook, but beware, it burns very easily.
Corned Beef, Cheese and Hyssop Spread
My national service days cured me from eating any Corned Beef, unfortunately not so for the rest of our family. My biggest challenge in the early days of experimenting with herbs was to find ways to make Corned Beef edible – according to my taste buds anyway. This is one of my ‘favourites’. The original recipe called for 250g minced, cooked ham, but I’ve never tried that.
1 tin minced Bull Brand Bully Beef (but any brand will do), remember to put the excess fat on the bird feeder for the insect eating birds; 3/4 cup cottage cheese (or a cream cheese, I’ve even used grated cheddar), 1/2 cup soft unsalted butter; 2 tsp finely chopped fresh hyssop; salt and pepper.
Combine all ingredients, blend well, add seasoning to taste. Place in a serving dish and chill before serving with crackers or toast.
Meat Balls with Hyssop
My mom makes the most divine meat balls, and I’ve ruined, and devoured, a couple of beef herds trying to improve her recipe. Admittedly, without success, but this one comes close. It also makes an exceptional pure beef hamburger patty.
250g minced meat; 1 minced onion; 1 beaten egg; 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley (preferably Italian parsley); 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh hyssop; salt and pepper; seasoned flour; oil for frying.
Combine minced meat and onion, mix in herbs and season to taste. Stir in beaten egg and mix well. Form into small balls, roll in seasoned flour, fry quickly in very hot oil, turning to brown them on all sides. Reduce the heat and cook them a little longer if they are not cooked in the middle.
Chicken with Hyssop
Next time you stuff a roasting chicken with your favourite stuffing substitute the herbs you usually use with 2 tsp finely chopped fresh hyssop. While the chicken is roasting baste it with its own fat or 2 tbsp melted unsalted butter and a little lemon juice. Sprinkle with 1 tsp finely chopped hyssop.
We are not too fond of stuffed chicken. We simply put a sprig of hyssop in the cavity of the un-stuffed chicken. To improve the flavour we add a knob of butter and some thinly peeled lemon rind.
Cauliflower and Hyssop Salad
Hyssop adds a new dimension to salads and its a wonderful way of benefiting from all those wonderful health building properties of fresh greenies and hyssop.
2 cups thinly sliced, raw cauliflower; 1 diced red apple; 1 1/2 cups plain yoghurt; 2-4 tsp finely chopped fresh hyssop; 1 tsp salt; 1 tbsp lemon juice (or your own home-made herb vinegar).
Mix cauliflower and apple together in a salad bowl. Combine other ingredients in a basin, mix well, pour over cauliflower and apple mix. Toss and chill before serving. Garnish with hyssop flowers or hyssop sprigs.
Recipe Variations: All the above recipes lend themselves to endless variations. For starters substitute the hyssop with any of your favourite herbs. Next try some of the bouquet garni’s above or just use your imagination to create your own. Using herbs, “Aagh no mom, not meatballs (or whatever) again!”, becomes a phrase expressed before the first bite, not after.
Queen Elizabeth’s Cordial Electuary of Hyssop
Her Highness’s original recipe called for some ingredients that’s quite hard to obtain on short notice, and quite expensive. After some experimenting (it took exactly 22 batches), I’m convinced that she won’t know the difference. This licorice flavored remedy, soothes sore throats, relieves cough, does wonders for an upset stomach and helps shortness of breath. You can take a tablespoon 1-3 times a day. Please read the cautions for using hyssop in medicinal dosages in last weeks newsletter.
2 tbsp dried hyssop (preferably flowering tops) or 1/3 cup fresh hyssop (chopped flowering tops); 1/4 cup water; 1 cup honey; 1 tsp aniseed; a pinch each ground pepper and ground ginger.
In a saucepan combine honey and water. Stir until the mixture is consistency of pancake syrup. Bring slowly to a boil (over a medium heat). Skim off any scum that rises to the surface. If using dried hyssop, use 1-2 tbsp water to moisten the dried material. Crush the aniseed. Stir both into the honey. Cover and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Add a small pinch of ground pepper and a small pinch of ground ginger. Simmer for another 10 minutes. Remove from heat, strain, and allow to cool. While the mixture is still a little warm, strain into a sterilized jar. When completely cooled, screw on the lid. Keep in the refrigerator for not more than one week.
Hyssop Air Freshener
If you have a aromatherapy oil burner take a good handful of fresh hyssop, or 1 heaped tablespoon of dried hyssop and bring it to boil in a pan of water. Pour into a your aromatherapy oil burner. . You need to watch this as the water evaporates quicker than oil. So keep on replenishing. This keeps the air sweet and healthy.