Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) is a fairly new addition to my magical repertoire having only recently been studying and experimenting with Hyssop’s powers. I have grown Hyssop in my garden since we moved in nearly 4 years ago, It was in fact one of the first plants I brought in, the same plant now being older and woody still yields a wonderful show of both pink and white flower heads. It was only when I ‘stumbled upon’ Psalm 51 (as one does!) that I began to explore Hyssop’s properties and powers. Being a stickler for using only locally grown and /or native herbs as much as possible it seemed I had a powerful cleansing herb right under my nose and have been making use of Hyssop’s potent cleansing properties ever since.
Growth and Cultivation
Hyssop is an evergreen shrub which I think grows a little like members of the Thyme family; it looks very similar growing fairly prostrate with the flowering shoots reaching less than a foot in height. It is in fact a member of the mint family (the Lamiaceae). It is not a British native and originates from southern Europe (hence, I suppose, its Thyme like growth habit). Over the years it becomes woodier and it is evergreen although I prune lightly in the autumn which keeps the plant neat and compact. It flowers from midsummer right into early autumn, and like I said, once Hyssop has done its thing I dead-head and prune.
Like all plants, Hyssop can be grown from seed although I have never tried and I think plant of this nature is probably best propagated by semi-ripe heel cuttings in the same way one would take lavender, rosemary or thyme cuttings. Choose non flowering, firm green shoots about 3 inches long, pull gently away from the main stem (so it leaves a little heel on the cutting), strip off all but the upper most leaves, trim the heel and push into a gritty compost around the edge of a pot. Water them well and place on a sunny windowsill and when new growth appears they can be potted on and hardened off.
Hyssop likes full sun and will tolerate some shade providing the soil is free draining and the roots aren’t too wet and cold. They will tolerate dry and even drought conditions which make them ideal for Mediterranean style herb gardens; in fact Hyssop looks perfectly at home amongst Lavenders and Catnip and makes an ideal edging to pathways where plants are often left to their own devices and are grown for the perfume as people brush past. Furthermore Bees adore Hyssop with its sweet nectar however supposedly cabbage white butterflies do not, so is useful to grow near brassicas in the veg patch. In short there is absolutely no excuse not to grow it!
Hyssop is a bitter ol’ herb when dry, surprising for one so pretty and fragrant when fresh. The scent of Hyssop, especially when dry reminds me of Marijuana…grassy, earthy and herbal. In the Kitchen Hyssop has long been out of favour (or flavour) although both leaves and flowers are perfectly edible. Used fresh the flowers offer a subtle minty fresh flavour and can be used to garnish soups, salads and ice cold summer cocktails. The leaves have a more pungent, almost overwhelming flavour and should be used sparingly to flavour sweet dishes such as ice creams, syrups and cordials.
The herb dries incredibly well although when dried the flavour and aroma becomes more bitter and camphor-ish, I recommend soaking the dried leaves and using the soaking liquor rather than the dried herb directly. In savour dishes Hyssop can be used in Lamb dishes in place of mint, or chicken dishes in place of thyme or sage…just use sparingly at first!
According to Culpepper, Hyssop is a herb governed by the watery sign of Cancer and the planet Jupiter, the greater benevolence. The main benefits of Hyssop relate primarily to its fluid regulating properties which have been widely documented by Culpepper and Grieve and, if we look back at Psalm 51, we again see reference to Hyssops watery, purging attributes.
There are only two uses for Hyssop which I have so far experimented with. The first being Hyssop’s properties against rheumatism. Now, anywhere you see ‘Rheum’ referred to, especially in old herbals they are generally talking ‘fluids’. Back then ‘rheum’ was applied to any mucous like fluid whether it be on the lungs or around the joints seen in such things as arthritis and so on or oozing from another orifice! Today we use words such as rheumatism and rheumatology specifically when dealing with issues relating to the skeletomuscular system, its use when applied to fluid on the lungs (what we now might call catarrh, phlegm or bronchitis etc.) is seldom used today, if at all…I’m yet to hear of a doctor diagnosing ‘rheum of the lung’, even rheumatism seems like an ‘old fashioned’ complaint to many. When studying herbal medicine, either professionally, or just for home use its important to learn how to decipher the language of the old herbals to fully understand and appreciate the totality of a herb’s attributes.
So, moving on. Hyssop with its fluid regulating cancerian ‘powers’ is good for sorting out those wet hacking coughs where you have excess fluid on the lungs. Now remember, things like coughs etc. are often just symptoms and can be a sign of something more sinister lurking out of sight so always get these things checked out, especially if you have had a cough for more than a couple of weeks. I recently acquired a White Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) plant (another H!!) which is also extremely well known for its cough soothing abilities. Horehound sweets were made in war time Britain, and as Horehound was considered ‘medicinal’, sweets made from Horehound were free of rationing. A syrup made using both Horehound and Hyssop is something I have made this year to keep close by ready for those Autumn coughs.
Here’s a good recipe for a basic syrup which can be modified to suit needs. Just add the quantity of the appropriate herb as specified. It works for most herbs, even some fruits like Elderberries (also very good for dry coughs in particular)
Basic Herbal Syrup
Pour 500ml water into a sauce pan and heat to a gentle simmer. Add 1 tablespoon of each herb you wish to use (e.g. 1 tablespoon Hyssop + I tablespoon Horehound). Turn off the heat and leave to steep and cool overnight.
(If using berries such as Elder use around 300-400g fresh and boil until fruit is pulped)
The next day strain the strong infusion through muslin, squeezing out the water (give the herb remains back to the earth).
Heat the infusion again and stir in 8oz granulated sugar (unrefined if possible), 4oz Glycerine and 2 Tablespoons Honey.
Simmer until the sugar has dissolved. Pour the syrup into spotless, sterile bottles (amber glass if you have them). The syrup will store in the refrigerator for 4 weeks (and can be frozen in plastic for longer)
Another use for Hyssop is for the ‘rheums’ of the joints, so that’s classic rheumatism, muscular cramps and so on. The best way I think to make use of the herb for these purposes is as a bath or compress. I am going to discuss herbal bath sachets later but to make a compress (or poultice as they are sometimes called) couldn’t be simpler.
As a general rule, for afflictions such as bruising or ‘hot’ inflammation as well as migraines and headaches you need a cold compress, for muscular aches, cramps and so on, you should use a hot compress. I always start with a strong infusion of either fresh or dried herb; a tablespoon of dried herb (in this case Hyssop) or a good handful of fresh to one pint of water, just off the boil. For a hot compress soak a fresh spotlessly clean cotton cloth such as a face flannel in the hot infusion (but make sure it’s cooled just enough so as not to scald obviously!) and apply to the affected area. Wrap in a warmed towel to keep the heat in and apply for 15 minutes. Repeat this several times reheating as required.
For a cold compress the practise is the same except you should chill the infusion (or decoction if using barks, seeds etc.) and apply in the same way but insulate with ice (or the trusty bag of frozen peas).
Compresses are superb for cuts, abrasions, bruises, knocks, muscular aches, sprains, cramps, boils, acne and any wounds which may be infected or septic.
Hyssop can be used in this way for all rheumatic complaints and the fresh herb is also said to be good for cuts and lacerations (try using with Yarrow).
Hyssop is mentioned in the bible in approximately 10 places, each one makes reference to Hyssop’s power to cleanse and purify. I have been unable to find exactly where the word Hyssop derives, however the Hebrew word for Hyssop, ‘ezob’ means ‘holy herb’ and ‘Hyssop’ may be relatively contemporary corruption. In Exodus we read the ritual for the Passover cleansing.
And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the bason, and strike the lintel and the two side posts with the blood that is in the bason; and none of you shall go out at the door of his house until the morning.
And also in Leviticus:
And he shall cleanse the house with the blood of the bird, and with the running water, and with the living bird, and with the cedar wood, and with the hyssop, and with the scarlet
The herb has clearly had powerful associations with cleansing and magical purging…just because its biblical, doesn’t make it any less valid or potent…we are Magpies after all and lore is lore!
As stated above, Hyssop may be incorporated into bath sachets for its healing purposes, but also for its powerful cleansing properties. I use Hyssop along with herbs such as Mugwort, Pine, Vervain and English Lavender as well as a good tablespoon of salt for ‘cleansing’ or purifying baths, especially around Candlemas.
Herbal bath sachets are very simple and very effective way to soak ourselves in the herbs’ powers especially for a water baby like me! All you need is a square of muslin or cheesecloth big enough to contain about a tablespoon of each of the dried herbs you wish to use. I restrict the number of herbs to about three or four, never more than five. Remember even something simple like this is a magical act so should be treated as such. For cleansing ritual baths, Psalm 51 is recited over the herbs as they are ground and mixed and poured into a square of muslin which is tied with a thin strip of muslin and submerged into the hot bath water…just like a tea bag! How big the sachet you create is entirely up to you, I like nice fresh crystal clear bath water…I do not find swimming in bits of leaf or in muddy brown bath sized infusions especially relaxing or cleansing, so I keep my sachets on the small side, the effect is no less potent, but its personal choice at the end of the day!
As the countless biblical references suggest, hyssop is an equally potent space cleanser…use to asperge consecrated water around space or perhaps include in incense designed for the purpose. The flowering heads of Hyssop make good ‘brushes’ which can be used to dip into oils, water (or paints) and paint onto doors, windows, thresholds or even people!
The lore surrounding Hyssop as a cleansing, purifying, purging herb extends back through the ages of man, its well worth taking note of such lore. Hyssop is well worth the time and attention and even if you don’t have a large garden, grow just a single pot of the delicate, shrubby herb and make use of it often.