Hyssopus officinalis — AKA "hyssop" — has been used for centuries for a variety of purposes, from cleansing to perfume.
Although hyssop is mentioned several times in the Bible, it is most likely a general term that was used for various plants, rather than a specific reference to Hyssopus. Some scholars believe the Biblical hyssop was actually marjoram or caper (Capparis spinosa). Even so, Hyssopus has been used for centuries as a cleansing and protective herb in holy places. Native to southern and eastern Europe, it was one of the many important herbs that settlers brought along to the New World.
A perennial member of the mint (Lamiaceae) family, hyssop carries a minty scent and flavor, although not pronounced, and has a slightly bitter element. It has a square stem, small linear leaves and flowers that appear in whorls, varying in number.
Bees and butterflies adore hyssop. Hummingbirds love it, too. The hyssop patch is a very busy place! Cabbage White Butterflies are drawn to the plant, so don’t sow it near anything in the Brassica family. Beekeepers have been known to use hyssop on their hives to keep the bees returning. Honey from bees that gather hyssop pollen is much sought after and considered one of the finest available.
Those looking for something colorful would do well to add hyssop to the garden, as it can be expected to bloom reliably from June to September. It requires well-drained soil, and is both drought tolerant and deer resistant (a boon for the herb grower in deer country). Relatively carefree once established, hyssop is a plant that is often overlooked, but once it is in the garden, you’ll wonder why you waited so long to plant it.
Easily grown from seed, Hyssop can either be sown directly in the garden or started indoors until the danger of frost has passed. Barely cover with dirt (about 1/4 inches deep) and look for germination in two to three weeks. Give each plant about 12 inches space or more in diameter. Pruning back hard in the spring, or after flowering is finished for the year, will ensure beautiful bushy plants that can provide an appealing border in the flower garden or a nice splash of color in the middle of an herb garden. The plant averages about 18 inches high, with a similar width.
As a shrubby perennial, Hyssop can be clipped into a low hedge, worked into a knot-garden or rock garden, planted in containers or window boxes (large enough to accommodate a robust root system), or just allowed to fly free. Trim back established hyssop plants heavily in early spring to prevent them from becoming too woody and spindly. Cutting back the foliage also encourages bushier plants.
The herb offers many culinary benefits. It can be used to add flavor in such dishes as soups, stews, meats, fish, vegetables and salads. It is sometimes used in brewing and as an ingredient in Absinthe and Chartreuse. The flavor is quite strong, so use it sparingly, but do try it!
Traditionally, Hyssop has been used medicinally for upper respiratory issues or applied externally to bruises, and it can be made into a syrup or tincture, but please note that Hyssop is not recommended for use during pregnancy. The plant is also distilled for essential oil, which should only be used by professionals. In such a concentrated form, used incorrectly, it has been known to cause seizures.
All aerial parts of the plant can be used to make a nice tea, alone or as part of a blend, which is especially valuable for wintertime when respiratory illnesses abound. Hardy in zones 4 to 10, it remains semi-evergreen in temperate zones (6 and higher). In many areas it can be plucked fresh in the middle of winter.
Tina Sams has been working with herbs for over 20 years. She co-owned herb shops and a soap business with a sister for several years before becoming the editor of The Essential Herbal magazine. She lives on a tree farm where there is almost unlimited space to grow herbs.
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