Herb to Know: Hyssop

This easy-to-grow herb treats respiratory illnesses when put in teas.

| April/May 1995

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) is a beautiful, well-behaved, easy-to-grow member of the mint family that deserves a place in any herb garden. Older plants form neat, rounded bushes 1 to 3 feet high; younger plants are looser in form. The stiff, erect, typically square stems bear opposite, linear, medium green leaves 1 to 1 1/2 inches long. Tufts of smaller leaves are borne in the leaf axils. Plants are evergreen where winters are mild. Clusters of six to fifteen violet-blue, pink, or white flowers in the upper leaf axils form dense spikes. The two-lipped, tubular corolla is 1/2 inch long and has four protruding stamens that match it in color. The calyx is tubular with five teeth. Plants bloom from summer to fall.

Some botanists recognize a subspecies, H. o. ssp. aristatus, which differs from the species in having bristlelike bracts instead of bladelike ones in the flower spike. The names nurserymen use are variable but generally do not conform to the botanical nomenclature. Cultivars offered for sale include H. o. ‘Rosea’ and ‘Pink Delight’ (pink), ‘Alba’ (white), and ‘Aristatus’ (dwarf). H. o. ‘Sissinghurst’ is a compact form (to 12 inches high) with blue flowers and slightly larger, brighter green leaves.

Native to southern Europe and Eurasia, hyssop came to North America with the early European colonists; the herb is listed among the seeds John Win­throp, Jr., brought to the New World in 1631. Over the years, it has escaped from gardens and is now naturalized at roadsides and in waste places here and there in North America from Quebec to Montana south to North Carolina. It is hardy in zones 3 to 10.

People perceive the odor of hyssop differently. It has been described variously as sweet, not sweet, skunky but not unpleasant, clean and aromatic with a hint of turpentine, medicinal, and minty/camphorous. Some European women are said to sniff hyssop flowers pressed in their psalm books to help them stay awake during church services.

In the “language of flowers”, hyssop symbolizes cleanliness and sacrifice, and it has been used since ancient times for ritual cleaning of holy places. (The hyssop referred to in the Bible, however, was most likely some other plant.)

Hyssop is a bee plant par excellence. Legend has it that beekeepers rubbed their hives with hyssop and other herbs to encourage bees to stay. Hyssop also attracts hummingbirds and butterflies; claims that it keeps cabbage butterflies away from crops or repels flea beetles have not been substantiated.

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