Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Herbe de Joseph, Herbe Sacrée, Herbe Sainte, Hiope, Hisopo, Hissopo, Hysope, Jufa, Rabo De Gato, Ysop
About This Plant
Hyssop is a highly aromatic, hardy perennial plant from the Lamiaceae family that thrives in USDA zones 4-9. It is cold hardy to -35 degrees fahrenheit. It reaches up to two to three feet tall and spreads from one to three feet wide. Older plants form neat, rounded bushes while younger plants are looser in form. It is an attractive and tough, drought-tolerant plant. Its aromatic character is perceived differently by different people. It has been described as everything from camphor-like to sweet, not sweet to skunky, clean to a hint of turpentine.
Hyssop is an upright, shrubby plant that grows in bushy clumps. It is topped with spikes of impressive blue or purple flowers and appears similar to other members of the Mint family. It can be pruned and shaped, grown in hedges, in masses, or in containers. It is a versatile plant from the Mediteranean region and can be found growing along roadsides as well as in gardens.
Hyssop’s flowers are generally blue or purple, though there are ornamental varieties with pink, red, or white flowers. It has a long flowering season from mid to late summer. The fragrant blossoms are tubular with two lips and protruding stamens growing in whorls of six to eight flowers on dense spikes. Bees and butterflies love this plant and honey produced from the flowers is said to be rich with an intense fragrance. Hyssop can also deter cabbage butterflies and flea beetles.
It’s small, pointed leaves are dark green and aromatic, growing to about one inch long with smooth margins. Tufts of smaller leaves form in the leaf axils. Stems are stiff and erect with a woody base, dividing into a branching form. Stems are also typically square. The roots form a short, fibrous rhizome.
Hyssop was often used as a strewing herb to freshen homes, kitchens, and sick rooms. Strewing herbs were often strewn along floors to be trampled upon, giving rooms a fresh scent that often had the added benefit of repelling pests. It was also used as a cleaning agent in the Middle East. The dried plant was used to sweep temples. It was added to wash water to cleanse floors, windows and door jamb to clear away negative energy. It was also believed to protect against the plague. It was brought to England in 1596 by Gerard. European women were said to sniff Hyssop flowers pressed into their psalm books to help them stay awake during church services. The plant was used in Europe for everything from epilepsy to snake bites. Extracts of the plant have been used as a fragrance in soaps and perfumes.
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), should not be confused with a number of other plants that go by a variation of the name “Hyssop”. This includes Giant Hyssop (Agastache sp.), Hedge Hyssop (Gratiola officinalis), and Water Hyssop (Bacopa sp.). These all belong to different genera and the names are often a source of confusion.
Hyssop seeds propagate easily and tend to germinate within 14-21 days. Direct seeding is recommended. They can be sown ¼” deep, one inch apart, in rows 18” apart. Seeds may also be started indoors and transplanted out after the last Spring frost. It can also be propagated by cuttings or division. Cuttings can be done in June or July by taking 6” stem cuttings and rooting them in a cold frame or greenhouse. Overwinter them in a protected area and plant out the following Spring. Divisions can be done in either Spring or Fall.
Seedlings should be thinned or transplanted to about one foot part. One foot spacing is recommended for a hedge while 18” spacing is appropriate for a garden.
Hyssop prefers full sun. It will tolerate partial shade but tends to get quite leggy. It needs well-draining soil and is drought-tolerant once established. A light, rocky, poor soil is preferred to one that is rich and moist. Be careful to not overwater it.
Cutting flowers once they bloom in Summer will cause a second round of flowering in the Fall for both you and the honeybees to enjoy. After its second flowering, it can be cut back severely in the Fall and will return in the Spring. Dead flowers and branches should be removed and then the plant can be pruned to the desired size and shape. Hyssop will self-sow but is considered non-aggressive and non-invasive. Hyssop plants should be divided every three to five years as plants tend to lose their vigor after time.
Flowering tops or or whole stems should be harvested just as blooming begins in mid-summer. They should be harvested on a warm day, early in the morning, just after the dew has dried. Bunches can be tied together and hung under shade to dry. Flowers and leaves can be dried on a screen in a well-ventilated, shaded and warm place for two to five days. Do not overdry as the plant material will lose its potency.
After flowering, seed pods will form in the Fall. Allow the pods to turn brown and dry out completely. The cut stems can be bundled and the seed heads placed in a brown paper bag. Once the pods become completely dry, the seeds will fall from the pods.
- To scent soaps and other products
- Vermicide, strewing herb and cleansing
Hyssop can be bitter if too much is used. It is best used in moderation and can be mixed with a sweeter mint, such as Spearmint, or a more lemony mint, such as Lemon Balm and added to stews, casseroles, stuffing, poultry dishes, or roasted meat. It is best to use it finely chopped and it can add a warm, Sage-Mint flavor. Hyssop cuts down on the fattiness in dishes. It’s strong flavor and aromatic qualities are similar to rosemary or lavender and it is used in much of the same way. It adds a complimentary flavor when paired with cranberries.
Hyssop is also used to flavor liqueurs, sauces, puddings and candies. It is part of the formula for Chartreuse and can be found in some absinthe recipes.
Hyssop is warming and diffusive with a bitter, pungent taste. Its leaves and flowers are used medicinally as a diaphoretic, antispasmodic, expectorant, carminative and nervine. It also makes a fragrant addition to bath teas and soaps.
Hyssop has an affinity for the lungs. It was traditionally made into a syrup for bronchitis, chronic lung infections and asthma. The green tops were also boiled in soup as a treatment for asthma. It is considered both stimulating and relaxing expectorant, useful when the lungs have become damp and congested. It is also used for sore throats.
As a diaphoretic, it is commonly recommended in the early stages of a cold or flu in order to draw the fever out quickly and prevent a full blown attack. It is also used for UTI’s, poor circulation, HIV/AIDS, and menstrual cramps. Hyssop is used for digestive issues including liver and gallbladder conditions, gas, colic, and loss of appetite. It can be made into a tea and is said to aid in the digestion of fatty or rich food.
Hyssop has mildly antibacterial properties and can be used as a mouthwash, gargle, or eyewash. It is rich in tannins, making it a good astringent that can be used as a face wash.
Hyssop should be avoided if pregnant or breastfeeding. There have been documented adverse effects due to its emmenagogue and abortive effects. Hyssop oil has also been known to cause convulsions in a child and should be avoided with both children and with those with a history of seizures. It contains thujone which in large doses is known to cause seizures. It is generally considered safe for most people at the doses commonly found in food and at medicinal amounts.
Hyssop is native to the Mediterranean and has been naturalized in the U.S. and Canada.