Hyssop Plant: Herb Mis-Identification

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I especially liked that creeper with the blue flowers. I couldn’t remember its botanical name, but I made a tag for it anyway, calling it “Creeping Hyssop”.

A friend called recently to tell me about a book he was writing. “It’s about all the worst mistakes that gardeners have made in their gardens over the years,” he said. “Do you have anything to contribute?” I started thinking about gardening mistakes I have made over the years and what I have learned from them. One particularly memorable blooper came to mind.

I grow about 400 different herbs, and each year I try 3 or 4 new ones. I keep the ones I like and let the rest go their own way. A dozen years ago, I went to one of my favorite nurseries to buy my yearly supply of annuals and new herbs. The owner is a friend, and we always talk nonstop while I’m there. Because I know most of her plants, she usually just lists my plants and totals them up on a receipt, without bothering to label the individual pots.

That day, we talked a great deal about hyssop. We discussed its long history as a battle-wound plant and its reputation as one of the bitter herbs of the Bible. As we walked through the aisles of rose and lemon-scented geraniums and bay trees, my friend told me of researchers she had read about who examined why hyssop appears in so many historical references as a treatment for battle wounds. What they discovered was that hyssop is a host for a kind of mold that produces penicillin.

“Applying a poultice of fresh hyssop was actually a topical application of penicillin!” she said as she handed me a pot containing a creeping plant with azure flowers.

I bought several boxes of potted plants and headed home with my bounty. I enjoyed the afternoon, bus­ily sticking the plants in their new homes in the herb beds. I labeled each one so that visitors could see what was growing.

I especially liked that creeper with the blue flowers. I couldn’t remember its botanical name, but I made a tag for it anyway, calling it “Creeping Hyssop”.

That summer, I got acquainted with my new plants. The method I recommend to others, and follow myself, is to try each new herb in cream cheese or chop some in scrambled eggs. The flavor of both foods is pretty neutral, allowing the flavor of the herb to come through. I chopped some of the “creeping hyssop” and added it to eggs. It tasted bitter and awful. The flavor wasn’t any better in cream cheese or on sliced tomatoes.

Chopped in salads, the plant was not pleasant. Cooked with pork, which an old cookbook recommended, it was worse than no seasoning at all. At this point, I gave up trying to like the flavor of this plant and just left it alone. “Why does anyone grow hyssop?” I wondered.

The next spring, my nursery friend came to my farm for a spring festival. As we walked on the lawn and visited, she inquired about the patch of gorgeous blue flowers at the edge of my herb bed some distance away. “That’s the creeping hyssop you gave me last spring,” I said.

“I didn’t know there was a creeping hyssop,” she responded as I went off to greet other guests, leaving her to wander through the garden on her own.

An hour or so later, she found me and asked me to come to the garden with her. “Is this the plant you were talking about?” she asked, pointing to the low carpet of deep blue.

When I replied that it was, she said, “This is that old-fashioned veronica you got from me last year, not a hyssop.”

I told her I was glad to learn that it wasn’t a hyssop. I explained about all the ways I had eaten the plant during the previous season and of my disappointment in hyssop. “I don’t think veronica is edible,” she said with a laugh.

As often as I have taught wild-plant workshops, given garden tours, and conducted herb classes here and elsewhere, I’ve never failed to warn my students or tour members to be absolutely sure of the identity of any plant before eating it. Yet I had not heeded my own advice. I had taken home boxes of plants without labels, assuming that I knew what each one was. Because my friend and I had been discussing hyssop at length, I’d assumed that the plant in her hand at the time was a hyssop. I should have checked in a good herb reference book before eating the plant.

The veronica still creeps along the border of one herb bed, its bright blue blossoms a reminder of my foolish ­mistake. Thankfully, veronica isn’t poisonous.

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.

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