Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Herb of the Week - Hyssop

With a history of being a cleansing herb, mostly because of its strong camphor-like smell, I chose a 7th century strewing herb for this week's

         Herb of the Week : Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)

A strewing herb is one that was scattered on the floor to be walked on.  Many were used for the strong sweet smells given off that could mask the harsher scents of cooking and unwashed guests.  Hyssop was often used in sick rooms to help ward off germs.


"Purge me with Hyssop and I shall be clean"- this famous allude from the Psalms stands as a testimony to hyssop’s status far back in history.  Most documentation of the herb is more recent however.  Although discussed by Nicholas Culpeper in his Herbal it gained popularity in the 17th century.  Used by Elizabethans as a plant placed in knot gardens it was as popular as Germander. Originating in the Mediterranean, its ability to grow well in a zone 4 or zone 5 climate made it an excellent export.  It can now be found all over the globe.


Hyssop is in the mint family with the indicative square stem.  It is quite easy to grow and is rarely bothered by pests.  They perfect zone for it is 4 to 5.  It is a very attractive plant and can be grown for looks alone.  I always place mine in a prominent location to catch attention.  You can also interplant it among white or pink roses or  as a companion to ferny leafed herbs like dill and fennel. An attractor of bees, Hyssop is the perfect addition to a bee or butterfly garden.

You can start this plant by seed, cuttings or division.  Choose a sunny spot where the soil is well drained or even dry.  It prefers a 6.7 pH and a light almost sandy soil will not be  bad for it.  Full sun is preferred but being a mint part shade will not hold it back too much.  In the early spring sow seeds 1/4 inch deep in rows about 1 foot apart.  In early summer thin the seedlings to stand 1 foot apart within the rows.  Propagation form stem cuttings in moist soil or root division can be done in the Spring or Fall.

Pruning a hyssop will be necessary to remove old flower heads and to force more branching.  They may need to be replaced about every 5 years as they can get rather dense which causes leaf die out at the base.


During the 17th and 18th centuries tinctures and teas were the common medicine and Hyssop was used among these for the treatment of bronchitis and sore throats.  According to Nicolas Culpeper in his Herbal. tis was "a most violet purgative" and should only be used under the care of "an alchymist."  Maude Grieve wrote in A modern Herbal that is will "improve the tone of a feeble stomach.

According to tradsition Hyssop was usedfro everything from a poultice to to promiote the healing of wounds bruises, and black eyes, to a penicillin type treatment for infected wounds.  It is a mild and safe herb to take internally so many make it into a tea that works as a mild expectorant.

The leaves have a mildly minty flavor and the the flowers are a genlte enough flavor that they can be added to salads, both green leaf and fruit salad.  The leaves and flowers can be dried and used in a tea.

The essential or volatile oil is the most useful part of this herb.  It is used in perfumes and potpourri as well as being the key ingredient in Benedictine and Chartreuse.

In more modern times Jeanne Rose recomends making an herbal bath with hyssop.  It is soothing and promotes sweating.  A soaking bath or a facial steam can both be made with this herb as it is a gentle skin cleanser.

To harvest hyssop for medicinal use, cut the stem just before the flowers begin to open.  Hang the bunches upside down in a warm dark place.  Dried leaves, green (not woody) stems and flowers may be chopped and stored for later use once dried.


For a quick omelet topping try this:  Mince 1/4 cup fresh hyssop and add to 4 cups of tomato sauce.  Serve over rice or cheese omelets for a special savory dish.

Next time you stuff a roasting chicken with your favorite 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.

Glazed Carrots with Hyssop

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
salt & 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 10 minutes or so. Be careful that it does not burn. Toss the carrots with hyssop and serve immediately.

Sore Throat Gargle with Hyssop

-1 cup boiling water
- 2 teaspoons fresh or dried Hyssop leaves
- 1/4 ounce salt

Pour the boiling water over the leaves, cover and steep for 20 minutes.  Strain and add the salt. Gargle as needed. Store in the refrigerator for a couple of days.

After a Workout Bath

Combine equal amounts of:
 bay leaf

Two ways to prepare your bath:

  1. Soak about 1/2 cup of herbs in water overnight. The next day, simmer for about 10 minutes and strain the liquid into the bath water.
  2. Place about 1/2 cup of herbs into a drawstring bag made of fairly loosely woven material (cheesecloth is ideal), or place in the center of a circle of fabric, and secure tightly. Tie the bag on the tap so that hot water flows through it.

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