“A protective herb of the heavens, it is touched with the love and protection of the Divine. Hyssop is a quintessential cleanser, enabling a clarity of spirit, and recognition of the divine beneficent power of the universe.”
Valerie Ann Worwood, The Fragrant Heavens, 1999
As we open another year, may we open our hearts to wonder at the grace and power of nature and the incredible healing and support present in the plants that are always waiting to delight us with their gifts. One of these is the humble hyssop. Cheerful, hardy, potently fresh yet pleasantly sweet, this member of the mint family has been humans' faithful ally for thousands of years, revered for its wide range of cleansing, health-supportive properties from ancient times to the present day.
A Sprig of Botany
The name hyssop comes from the Greek hyssopos, which stems from the Hebrew word ezob, ezov, or azob, meaning "holy herb" or "good-scented herb."
Hyssopus officinalis is a small shrub in the Lamiaceae family that is native to southern Europe and the Middle East. It has naturalized in temperate areas beyond its native range and now grows wild throughout Europe, northern Asia, and North America. Hyssop prefers warm, sunny climates and will tolerate drought and sandy or chalky soils, and it is relatively easy to grow as a garden or landscape plant.
This herbaceous perennial grows 12 to 24 inches (30 to 60 cm) tall. The plant has a woody base, and from this base grows upright branches with square stems typical of the Lamiaceae family. Its fragrant dark green leaves are narrow and pointed with toothed edges, alternately arranged, and about ¾ to 1 inch (2 to 2.5 cm) long. In the summer and fall, hyssop produces spikes of purple to blue flowers (also pink and white depending on the variety). The blooms are arranged in whorls of six to fifteen flowers, which are tubular, two-lipped, and have protruding stamens. Hyssop has both male and female organs and is pollinated by bees, and the flowers are also very attractive to butterflies. The flowers develop into achenes, which are dry, oblong fruits that contain one to four brown seeds.
(It is to be noted that several plants belonging to the Agastache genus are commonly called hyssop - such as anise hyssop or giant hyssop - but these are Lamiaceae cousins of Hyssopus officinalis. There are also 'hedge hyssops', herbs of the Gratiola genus from the Plantaginaceae family, which are plants that are entirely different.)
There are varieties of hyssop that yield different chemotypes of essential oil, and this is very important to note in aromatherapy. The most common hyssop oil is the pinocamphone chemotype, often called hyssop. This hyssop's chemistry includes ketones that can be potentially neurotoxic: pinocamphone and isopinocamphone. These two constituents can cause convulsions and seizures, and the oil needs to be used very cautiously and completely avoided during pregnancy and breastfeeding, with children, and with people with epilepsy or seizure disorders.
However, there is a variety of hyssop, Hyssopus officinalis var. decumbens (also known as Hyssopus Montana), which can be rich in linalool or 1,8-cineole, with a very low level of ketones. The essential oil of this hyssop will be labeled as a chemotype linalool or chemotype 1,8-cineole. These are both much safer essential oils; in Essential Oil Safety (2nd edition, 2014) Tisserand and Young state: "The very low content of pinocamphones means that this chemotype of hyssop oil will not possess the kind of GABAA receptor inhibitory neurotoxicity normally associated with hyssop oils." In Aromatica (Vol. 2, 2019), Peter Holmes writes that Hyssop officinalis var. decumbens has the same actions and indications as Hyssopus officinalis (ct. pinocamphone), with possibly greater potential as a nervous restorative due to the linalool or 1,8-cineole content, and that none of the precautions for common hyssop oil apply.
A Leaf Through History and Traditional Use
This 1759 watercolor line engraving by Timothy Sheldrake and C.H. Hemerich shares the name for hyssop in nine languages and offers this delightful description of the plant, followed by its medicinal virtues:
“This Plant rises to about a foot high from a thick woody Root, having Square Stalks of a Light green, sending out Shoots crossways, as the Leaves grow by pairs, of a green, a little inclin’d to a bronish turn, with Edges turn’d Backwards. The Cup is a taper’d socket cut into five gashes with very fine tender points. The Flowers are Tubes spread and Divided at the end, of a most Beautiful Blue, hairy on the upper part of the Inside. These Flowers, which grow regularly at the Joints of the Stalks, turn to one side to Blom. The Style, which divides at the End, is of the same Colour, and Rises from the Center of four seeds. The Flower has two long and two short deep Blue Chives, with Black Summits cover’d with a white Farina.
It is reckon’d Cephalic, is used against Distempers of the Lungs, and is Bruis’d & outwardly applied for taking Black & Blue marks out of the Skin.”
Hyssop has long been esteemed for its therapeutic properties. The ancient Egyptians and Hebrews valued it as a cleansing herb and made brooms of it to sweep out their temples or burn it as purifying incense. From time immemorial, hyssop was a common strewing herb because of its fresh aroma and cleansing properties. Hyssop is mentioned several times in the Bible as part of rituals for purification and as one of the bitter herbs eaten at Passover. However, there is debate if this plant is Hyssopus officinalis or another member of the Lamiaceae family, such as marjoram or savory. Whether or not the Biblical hyssop was actually hyssop, Christianity established Hyssopus officinalis as a sanctification herb, as both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church would sprinkle hyssop water on people, objects, or places to ritually cleanse or bless them. When London's Westminster Abbey was completed in the 13th century, it was consecrated with hyssop.
Alongside its traditional function as a purifying herb, hyssop was highly regarded for its ability to support the respiratory system. The ancient Greeks greatly valued the plant as a respiratory remedy and restorative; physicians Galen and Dioscorides wrote of the plant's virtues and praised its expectorant actions. The Romans utilized hyssop to treat the plague, and bunches of hyssop were hung in houses to ward off infection.
European monks grew hyssop as an herb to treat coughs and damp, congestive conditions of the lungs. The plant was included in all the great medieval herbals and the pharmacopeias of many regions and, to a fair degree, was regarded as a 'cure-all' herb for its wide range of applications.
Hildegard von Bingen, the 11th century abbess and herbalist, wrote: "Hyssop is of a dry nature and exists moderately warm. Its strength is so great that even stone is not able to resist it since it grows where it is sown. Let him who suffers pain in the liver, or who coughs, or who suffers shortness of breath, eat hyssop with either meat or lard, and the person will get better." She alludes to hyssop's beneficial actions on the nervous system and psyche and offers this recommendation: "If the liver is sick because of the person's sadness, the person should cook young chicken with hyssop before the sickness increases. The person should often eat this hyssop and chicken and should also eat fresh hyssop laid in wine, and then drink the wine."
16th century English herbalist Nicolas Culpeper states: "Dioscorides saith, that hyssop boiled with rue and honey, and drank, helps those that are troubled with coughs, shortness of breath, wheezing and rheumatic distillation upon the lungs; taken also with oxymel, it purges gross humours by stool; and with honey, kills worms in the belly…being boiled with wine, it is good to wash inflammations, and takes away the black and blue spots and marks that come by strokes, bruises, or falls, being applied with warm water. It is an excellent medicine for the quinsy, or swellings in the throat, to wash and gargle it…" and he continues to say that hyssop is a helpful ingredient in remedies for snakebites, lice, epilepsy, toothaches, earaches, and cuts."
According to Health from British Wild Herbs written by Richard Lawrence Hool in 1918, "[hyssop] is useful for coughs, colds, bronchitis, whooping cough, inflammation of the lungs, constipation, and fevers of all kinds, hoarseness, and obstruction of the urinary passages, and pinworms. The infusion of one ounce in a pint of boiling water may be given freely in half-teacupful doses, in all the above conditions, with beneficial results.”
In her Modern Herbal (1931), Margaret Grieves lists hyssop's medicinal actions as “expectorant, diaphoretic, stimulant, pectoral, carminative,”and states that “the healing virtues of the plant are due to a particular volatile oil, which is stimulative, carminative, and sudorific. It admirably promotes expectoration, and in chronic catarrh its diaphoretic and stimulant properties combine to render it of especial value.” She adds that hyssop infusion (tea) made with the fresh green tops of the plant is a country remedy for rheumatism, whether drunk or applied topically and that the tea is used to improve the tone of a feeble stomach and to address pulmonary diseases and asthma. Additionally, an infusion of the leaves or the fresh herb, lightly crushed, would be applied topically to treat bruises, contusions, and cuts.
Early 19th century American eclectic medical practitioners used the tincture of hyssop to ‘equalize the circulation' or regulate blood pressure. Hyssop's warming and stimulating nature has beneficial effects on several body systems, and beyond its common use for respiratory issues, it was widely employed to strengthen and soothe digestion, as a uterine stimulant and emmenagogue, and as a diuretic to aid in clearing kidney and urinary tract infections and dissolving stones. Hyssop was also utilized as a general nerve tonic to help with anxiety, depression, epilepsy, and hysteria.
According to Chinese medicine, hyssop is hot and stimulating, and it strengthens and warms the lungs. It is a tonic for the Yang Qi and defensive Qi and is indicated for immune deficiency, chronic bronchitis, breathlessness, and poor vitality.
Hyssop was also appreciated purely for its aroma and flavor. The fresh herb has seen moderate culinary use (it is somewhat bitter and quite minty) and some versions za'atar, a classic Middle Eastern spice mix, feature dried hyssop leaves. The leaves can also be eaten as an aromatic condiment. Hyssop has long been used to flavor alcohol, and most notably is one of the ingredients in the official formulation of the famed French herbal liqueur Chartreuse. Additionally, it is one of the key herbs that gives absinthe its signature green color.
Bees adore hyssops abundant blossoms and their pollination results in a wonderfully aromatic honey. Beyond its medicinal uses, this was often a secondary motivation behind the prolific presence of hyssop plants in medieval monastic gardens.
Hyssop may not come immediately to mind in the realm of perfumery, but Mrs. Grieves shares that “the leaves, stems and flowers of H. officinalis possess a highly aromatic odour and yield by distillation an essential oil of exceedingly fine odour, much appreciated by perfumers, its value being even greater than Oil of Lavender." (A Modern Herbal, 1931) Salvatore Battaglia shares that “hyssop oil is used in perfumery to provide a rich body, warm-spicy-herbaceous note with personality." (The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, Vol. 1, 3rd Ed., 2018)
Since antiquity, hyssop has been considered a plant of mystery and power and esteemed for its purifying and protective qualities. It was considered symbolic of faith, physical purity, and moral regeneration. In line with its clearing and strengthening properties, hyssops is deemed supportive to the solar plexus chakra and the throat chakra, and particularly the third eye chakra for its ability to cleanse the mind and thus clear impediments to receiving intuitive guidance and insights. In Aromatherapy and the Mind (1994), Julia Lawless shares "On a psychological level, hyssop lifts the spirit and gives the mind clarity and direction. Its warm scent helps calm emotional extremes and increases awareness." Suzanne Fischer-Rizzi adds “Hyssop uplifts and provides direction; it rejuvenates us and gives wings to our spirits without letting us lose touch with reality. Under hyssop's influence, a muddled mind becomes more organized and concentration increases. Hyssop brings inspiration and wisdom.” (Complete Aromatherapy Handbook, 1990) Hyssop's cleansing and opening qualities are also recognized in Traditional Chinese Medicine: “As a tonic of the Lung-yang in particular, hyssop oil's rejuvenating effect on the Bodily Soul P'oo) also makes it helpful for melancholy and pessimism. Hyssop's strong, pungent aroma ‘opens the chest’ and helps us to face the world, counteracting the urge to withdraw.” (Gabriel Mojay, Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit, 1999)
Patricia Davis suggests using hyssop oil to cleanse any area where one is planning to meditate or give healing. (Subtle Aromatherapy, 1991) In The Fragrant Heavens, Valerie Ann Worwood writes: “This holy herb uplifts the spirit to the realms of divine wisdom, the source of creation, preparing the higher self for the final ascent into the heavens. It purifies and cleanses, awakening closed hearts and minds, bringing tolerance and understanding, unconditional love and acceptance, and the comprehension needed for the ultimate oneness with the universe.”
Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor. '‘Sprinkle me, Lord, with hyssop and I will be purified'’ are the words of the centuries-old Gregorian chant that opens the ritual of cleansing and blessing with hyssop water. May hyssop and all our plant allies bring you clarity and blessings this new year, and an ever-opening awareness of the beauty and beneficence of the natural world.