Hyssop Plant: Herb Mis-Identification

A story of failing to follow your own gardening advice.

| April/May 1997

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geraniums and bay trees, my friend told me of researchers she had read about who examined why hyssop appears in so many historical references as a treatment for battle wounds.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.

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