Latin: Hyssopus officinalis
Family: Lamiaceae or Labiatae
Folk names: Isop (Gaelic), Ysopo, Yssop, Ysope, Hinojo (Spanish), Eisop (PA Dutch)
Energetics: warm, neutral
Properties: antiviral, antibacterial, carminative, decongestant, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, emmenagogue, hypertensive, nervine, sedative, anthelmintic, vulnerary, antioxidant
Taste: pungent, slightly bitter, diffusive, slightly warming, dry
Parts used: aerial parts of flowering herb
Degree: 2nd, 3rd
Tissue state: depression
Key uses: colds and flus with fever, upper respiratory infections
History, Herblore & Traditional Use
It is debated whether the “hyssop” of the bible was true hyssop or a species of marjoram, but as the daughter of a minister of a small country church, I remember hearing this plant mentioned many times in scriptures as a symbol of purification. When I was re-introduced to this plant in my adult life as a student of herbs, the phrase “purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” sprang from my memory in my grandmother’s voice, as she read from the book of Psalms. Summoning up this memory was my introduction to the herb’s many uses. In the Old Testament, bunches of hyssop were used to paint doorways with lamb’s blood during Passover in hopes that the angel of death would pass over that house and spare the family’s firstborn son. It appears again in the New Testament in the story of the crucifixion when Jesus was offered a wetted sponge of vinegar on a stick of hyssop just before death (although I’ve never seen a stem of hyssop long and sturdy enough that would do that). Lepers were treated with a preparation of hyssop and cedar dipped in the blood of a bird and wrapped with scarlet wool. This preparation appears more than once in the scriptures, and was also used in burnt offerings. It is also the plant that is said to grow from the Wailing Wall. The name itself comes from the Greek hyssopos and the Hebrew azob or ezob, meaning “holy herb”. It’s also said that sprigs of hyssop were kept pressed in between the pages of prayer books to keep one from falling asleep during church services (this could also have been to keep bugs from eating the books, due to hyssop’s pungent smell).
Historically, this herb was valued for its ability to clear physical illnesses as well as dark spiritual energy. Hyssop was traditionally a cleansing herb in every sense of the word. It has been used for respiratory disorders since about 400 BCE. It is said that the Romans planted hyssop as they expanded their empire because they regarded it so highly for its medicinal and ritual uses. The Pennsylvania Dutch have a tradition of using it in floor washing and cleansing rooms. Blended with licorice, horehound, figs, and plums, they also use hyssop to heal all illnesses of the head and chest, thin phlegms, and calm hoarseness. Hung in a bundle, in a sachet, or sprayed about, it was used to purify and cleanse spaces of negative energies. Hyssop has long had a place in pagan ritual use as a cleansing and protective herb. In addition to cleansing sacred space, it is burned in the dark of the moon to break bad habits or old patterns that no longer serve you. Hyssop is
also added to baths to cleanse and purify the body, and is used as a wash water to purge your hearth and home of bad energy.
Discorides claimed “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.” Culpeper liked it for a wide variety of complaints such as intestinal worms, dropsy, a wound wash, bruises, quinsy, toothache, tinnitus, snake bites, lice, and as an expectorant. Farmers believed that hyssop could treat wounds they incurred from rusty implements to avoid tetanus (which there are is no current research to support).
In her Modern Herbal, Maude Grieve states…
|“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.”|
The fresh or dried herb has been used as a culinary herb in Greek and Israeli cooking to flavor soups, stews, soft cheeses, sauces, pasta dishes, baked into breads, cooked with vegetables, and the flowers added to green salads. It’s also been used as a savory addition to sweet foods such as jellies, custards, or cooked with fruit. It’s also an ingredient in the French liqueur Chartreuse (by name and color) made by Carthusian monks. Beekeepers feed their bees on hyssop to produce a fragrant honey.
Ecology & Botany
Hyssop is a perennial to zones 3-4, grows to about 2’ tall and has a bushy habit with many upward-reaching branches. It looks spindly and untidy in winter and kind of begs to be cut back, but fills out nicely in summer (kind of how lavender behaves). Hyssop is native to the Mediterranean and surrounding areas, and is used to sandy, sharply draining soils and periods of drought. It is easily grown in cultivation and is a welcome addition to any herb garden for attracting pollinators, and is said to repel cabbage white larvae and slugs. I have personally found that the plant started from seed is an herbaceous perennial in its first year, and a woody perennial thereafter. As a member of the mint family, it has the characteristic square stem with opposite leaves, and tiny flowers with 5 united petals. Its flowers range in color from pink to dark purple/blue, and rarely white. Like most mints, hyssop is rich in volatile oils, which is obvious when you smell or taste a leaf.
We can safely say that due to its diffusive volatile oils, hyssop purges things that are stuck; stuck mucus in the chest, a stuck fever that needs to be released through the pores, stuck blood in bruises or delayed menses, slowed digestion, and gas and bloating in the stomach. Matthew Wood sums up hyssop nicely by saying that it “opens pores and passageways deep inside the body, as well as in the skin, releasing heat…bringing cooling, lubricating, cleansing fluids into interior organs, dredging blood and fluids to remove heat and congestion, bringing pathogenic heat to the surface and out through the skin. It is indicated when mucus is hardened from heat baking down the fluids.” It’s this action of keeping things moving from the center outwards that encourages the body to create new, healthy fluids behind the old, sick ones as they are evacuated.
David Winston uses hyssop topically as an antiviral for herpes cold sores with lemon balm and licorice, and there are studies to support its antiviral activity specifically for herpetic sores.
It’s currently in the British Pharmacopeia as a specific remedy for bronchitis and the common cold. Richo Cech says “Hyssop is a stimulating expectorant demonstrating marked antiviral activity. The herb promotes elimination of toxins via sweating and diuretic effects. The specific application is in symptomatic relief and swift resolution of the common cold.” (Making Plant Medicine 4th ed.)
The flower essence is used for “Body-based guilt or shame, self-punishment or mutilation directed consciously or unconsciously at the body; soul memory of previous abuse or shame that degrades body image.” (Flower Essence Services)
There are several studies showing extracts of hyssop to have significant antiviral activity. In 1990, a study from Bethesda, Maryland demonstrated that an extract of hyssop had a high to moderate activity against HIV-1 in vitro. Five years later, a previously unknown polysaccharide of Hyssopus officinalis was shown to inhibit the replication rate of the HIV-1 virus in vitro. A group of researchers in a 2006 German study also saw strong antiviral actions from the essential oil of hyssop in vitro against the acyclovir-resistant herpes simplex virus, concluded that a systemic dose large enough to be effective in a clinical setting would probably be toxic, but a topical treatment would be more applicable.
Hyssop is also being studied for its antioxidant properties. Hyssop and rosemary were applied to pork meat as whole plant extracts to see what effect they had on lipid oxidation and the degradation of heme pigments. Meat treated with the extracts was shown to have a longer shelf life and hold on to more of its heme iron, some of which is usually lost in cooking. A 2013 Serbian study also showed the essential oil and extracts of hyssop had significant antioxidant and antifungal properties, almost as high as BHT, a commercial, synthetic additive.
In this 2004 study from Korea, when over-agitated mice treated with caffeine were exposed to the essential oil of hyssop, it was shown to have a sedative effect, similar to that of lavender. These results could translate into hyssop essential oil being used in a clinical setting as aromatherapy to help regulate nervous disorders.
In searching for studies on hyssop and its respiratory benefits, I came across the beginnings of some nursing research attempting to find scientific support for using hyssop essential oil for patients in end-of-life experiencing respiratory distress. In providing end-of-life care, a bedridden patient often displays what is called “death rattle”, or mucus in their chest that they cannot expel, which can be heard in their distressed, irregular breathing. Pain management medications given to hospice patients have many side-effects including extreme drying out of mucous membranes (mouth, throat, eyes), restlessness, hallucinations, constipation, and urinary retention. The abstract concludes, “Hyssopus officinalis L. has demonstrated efficacy in reducing the audible rattle associated with terminal secretions in home hospice case studies. The results of this project are expected to provide a foundation for future research investigating the effectiveness of Hyssopus officinalis L. essential oil for reducing terminal respiratory secretions in patients at end-of-life.” Although her case studies to support this are unpublished, I found this bit of research particularly interesting, having cared for several people in the end of their lives and having seen and heard the side effects of hospice pain management medications. It appears this herb has the potential to ease end-of-life transitions for the patient, their caregivers, and their families.
A group of researchers in Japan experimented with isolated constituents found in hyssop. The plant’s constituents were shown to inhibit complex carbohydrate absorption and have a positive effect on mice whose blood sugar spiked after carbohydrate loading. The results of this study indicate that hyssop could potentially have a place in treating type 2 diabetes.
Dosages & Applications
Taken as a tea: two teaspoonsfull of dried or fresh herb in one cup boiling water, infused 10-15 minutes, covered to keep the volatile oils in. Drink 3 cups a day, as hot as you can take it, to help loosen and expel mucus in the chest or to sweat out a dry, slow burning fever.
Taken as a tincture: up to 40 drops, 2-5 times daily.
Taken as a syrup: make a strong infusion of the herb, strain, and add an equal amount by volume of honey. Take by the teaspoonful up to 5 times a day to help expel stuck phlegm.
As an oil: the essential oil diluted in a carrier oil can be used as a chest and throat rub, or as a massage oil for nervous exhaustion. (Floracopeia)
Pinocamphone, isopinocamphone, estragol, borneol, geraniol, limonene, thujone, camphene, pinocampheol, cineole, linalool, terpineol, myrcene, caryophyllene, flavonoids (hyssopin), caffeic acid, tannins, bitter lactones (marrubiin, ursolic acid).
Warnings and Contraindications
Hyssop should be avoided during pregnancy, with heavy menstrual flow, and fever with heavy sweating. It should also be avoided in persons with a history of seizures or those taking anti-epileptic medications, because large doses may lower the seizure threshold. The pure, undiluted essential oil can cause irritation of the mucous membranes, and in those with sensitive skin.