Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) is a member of the Lamiaceae or mint family. This aromatic evergreen, classified by botanists as a sub-shrub, should not be confused with several distinct species of plants also called hyssop, including giant hyssop, hedge hyssop, prairie hyssop, or wild hyssop.
Hyssop is native to southern Europe and Asia. The London surgeon and apothecary John Gerard, author of the Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, brought hyssop to England in 1597.
The attractive herb soon became a component in many ornamental knot gardens. The sun-loving hyssop has naturalized throughout North America, and grows wild in chalky soil and on dry and rocky slopes in the Mediterranean.
Hyssop has a short and fibrous rhizome. The stalk emerges from a woody base and divides into numerous erect, square, and branching stems that may reach a height of 2 ft (61 cm). The small leaves are opposite, without stems, and lance-shaped, with fine hairs and smooth margins.
They have a somewhat bitter taste. Flowers have a tubular, two-lipped corolla, and four stamens. They bloom in successive whorls in the leaf axils at the top of the stems, only growing along one side.
The blooms may be in shades of rose, purple, mauve, blue, and sometimes white, depending on the variety. Hyssop comes into flower from June through October, and the blossoms are well loved by bees. The perennial hyssop is a sweet and warming aromatic with a camphor-like scent.
This garden favorite is especially useful in companion planting. Hyssop attracts the white butterfly, a pest to cabbage and broccoli, thus sparing the food crops from the infestation. The herb also has been used to increase the yield of grapevines and the flavor of the fruit when it is planted nearby.
The Hebrew people called this herb azob, meaning “holy herb.” Hyssop was used in ancient times as a cleansing herb for temples and other sacred places. It was also used to repel insects. The Romans used hyssop to bring protection from the plague and prepared an herbal wine containing hyssop.
In ancient Greece, the physicians Galen and Hippocrates valued hyssop for inflammations of the throat and chest, pleurisy, and other bronchial complaints. In the early seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, hyssop tea and tincture were used to treat jaundice and dropsy.
The flowers and leaves of hyssop are considered medicinally valuable by some herbalists; however, the German Commission E has not approved hyssop for any medicinal purposes. The herb has some antimicrobial and antiviral properties.
It is especially useful in helping the immune system to combat respiratory infections and colds. Hyssop taken in a warm infusion acts as an expectorant and will help to expel phlegm and break up congestion in the lungs.
It is frequently recommended for the treatment of congested sinuses and catarrh. It is also a beneficial herb for treatment of the cold sore virus, Herpes simplex. An infusion has also been used to relieve the distress of asthma. Hyssop is a diaphoretic which means that it acts to promote perspiration.
It will help to reduce fever and eliminate toxins through the skin. Hyssop also acts as a carminative and digestive aid, relieving flatulence and relaxing the digestive system. This versatile herb is also a nervine, which means that it calms anxiety. It is useful in children’s digestive and respiratory herbal formulas, as well.
Used externally as a skin wash, a decoction of the flowering tops can help the healing of burns and relieve skin inflammations. The fresh crushed leaves promote healing of bruises, and relieve the discomfort of insect bites and stings. When applied as a hair rinse, hyssop may help eliminate head lice.
Hyssop preparations have also been used to relieve muscular pain and rheumatism when taken as a tea or a bath additive. The hot vapors of a steaming decoction of hyssop may bring relief of earache and inflammation.
A research study published in 2002 confirmed the results of studies done in the early 1990s, which found that hyssop leaf extract demonstrates strong anti-HIV activity. The specific compounds responsible for this antiviral action, however, were not identified in these studies.
Moreover, none of these studies tested the efficacy of hyssop in human subjects. The volatile oil of hyssop contains camphene, pinenes, terpinene, the glycoside hyssopin, flavonoids (including diosmin and hesperidin), tannins, acids, resin, gum, and the bitter substance known as marrubiin. Marrubiin is also found in white horehound (Marrubium vulgare).
More recently, researchers have discovered that essential oil of hyssop is an effective muscle relaxant. The component that has been identified as most likely responsible for this effect is isopinocamphone.
One should harvest hyssop when the herb reaches a height of about 1.5 ft (46 cm). Frequent cuttings from the tops of mature plants will keep the foliage tender for use in salads, soups, or teas. Used sparingly in culinary preparations, hyssop’s tender shoots are a digestive aid, especially with greasy meats. When harvesting the herb for medicinal uses, one should use the flowering tops.
Gather the herb on a sunny August day after the dew has dried. Hang the branches to dry in a warm, airy room out of direct sunlight. Remove leaves and flowers from the stems and store in clearly labeled, tightly sealed, dark-glass containers.
Infusion: Place 3 tbsp dried, or twice as much fresh, hyssop leaf and blossom in a warm glass container. Bring 2.5 cups of fresh, nonchlorinated water to the boiling point, and add it to the herbs. Cover and infuse the tea for 10–15 minutes. Strain and drink warm. The prepared tea will store for about two days if kept in a sealed container in the refrigerator.
Hyssop tea may be enjoyed by the cupful up to three times a day. Hyssop may be combined with white horehound for additional expectorant action to relieve coughs. For sore throats, a warm infusion of hyssop combined with sage (Salvia officinalis) is a home remedy recommended by some herbalists.
Tincture: Combine four ounces of finely-cut fresh or powdered dry herb with one pint of brandy, gin, or vodka, in a glass container. The alcohol should be sufficient to cover the plant parts. Place the mixture away from light for about two weeks, shaking several times each day. Strain and store in a tightly-capped, dark glass bottle. A standard dose is 1–2 ml of the tincture three times a day.
Essential oil: The commercially available essential oil of hyssop is obtained by steam distillation of the flowering tops. The oil is highly aromatic and is used in perfumes, aromatherapy, and to flavor liqueurs, especially Chartreuse and Benedictine.
The oil has a warm and pungent aroma with a slight camphor-like smell. It may be used in dilute form as an external nonirritating application on bruises, cuts, eczema, and dermatitis, as a chest rub for bronchitis and the congestion of colds, and as an additive to bath water to relieve nervous exhaustion and melancholy.
Only moderate amounts of hyssop essential oil should be used. Do not use the herb continuously in any form for long periods of time. Pregnant women, children, and persons with epilepsy should avoid any use of this potent essential oil. High doses (10–30 drops for adults) may cause convulsions due to the ketone known as pinocamphone. Pregnant or lactating women should not use any form of hyssop.
Hyssop can cause nausea, upset stomach, and diarrhea in susceptible persons. Symptoms of overdose include dizziness, tightness in the chest, and disturbances of the central nervous system.
No interactions between hyssop and standard pharmaceuticals have been reported as of early 2003.