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Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) Lamiaceae

The genus Hyssopus consists of this one species. This is a very ancient herb that can be traced back almost unchanged through the Greek hyssopos and Hebrew esob, although it is doubtful that Hyssopus officinalis is the same hyssop that is referred to in the Old Testament. Traditionally it has been used as a strewing herb, and many of its historical healing properties that have been previously dismissed as "superstition" are once again being acknowledged. Hyssop is a small aromatic perennial shrub with erect woody branched stems up to 60cm (2') long covered with fine hairs at the tips. Leaves are narrow and oblong shaped, @ 2.5cm (1") long. Hyssop has small blue flowers, borne along the length of the branches during summer.

Cultivation; Sow seeds in spring and plant out seedlings @ 45cm (1') apart. Hyssop can also be propagated from heel cuttings or root division in spring or autumn. Hyssop should be grown in full sun on well drained soil, and will benefit from occasional clipping. It will need to be replaced every four years or so. Ideal for use as a low hedge or border within the herb garden.

Uses; The leaves have a slightly bitter minty flavour and can be added to soups, salads or meats, although should be used sparingly as the flavour is very strong. Hyssop also has medicinal properties which are listed as including; expectorant, carminative, relaxes peripheral blood vessels, promotes sweating, anti-inflammatory, anti-catarrhal, anti-spasmodic. Its active constituents are volatile oil, flavonoids, tannins and bitter substance (marrubin). A strong tea made from the leaves and flowering tops is used in lung, nose and throat congestion and catarrhal complaints, and externally it can be applied to bruises to reduce the swelling and discolouration. An old English country remedy for cuts and wounds suffered working in the fields was to apply a poultice of bruised hyssop leaves and sugar in order to reduce the risk of tetanus infection. An essential oil made from hyssop increases alertness and is a gently relaxing nerve tonic suitable for treating nervous exhaustion, overwork, anxiety and depression. The Herb Society's "Complete Medicinal Herbal" cautions however that "the essential oil contains the ketone pino-camphone which in high doses can cause convulsions. Do not take more than the recommended dose." Hyssop also has uses in the garden, it is said to be a good companion plant to cabbage, partly because it will lure away the Cabbage White butterfly, and according to Dorothy Hall has also "been found to improve the yield from grapevines if planted along the rows, particularly if the terrain is rocky or sandy, and the soil is not as easy to work as it might be" (The Book Of Herbs, Pan, 1972). However hyssop is said to be antagonistic to radishes, and they should not be grown nearby. Hyssop also attracts bees, hoverflies and butterflies, thus has a place in the wild garden as well as being useful in controlling pests and encouraging pollination without the use of unnatural methods. Hyssop is also used as an ingredient in eau-de-Cologne, and in the liqueur Chartreuse.

Preservation; Hyssop leaves can be preserved by drying. They should be harvested on a dry day at the peak of their maturity and the concentration of active ingredients is highest. They should be dried quickly, away from bright sunlight in order to preserve their aromatic ingredients and prevent oxidation of other chemicals. Good air circulation is required, such as an airing cupboard with the door left open, or a sunny room, aiming for a temperature of @ 20-32C (70-90F). Avoid using a garage, or anywhere else where the leaves may become contaminated by fumes. Hyssop leaves should dry out in about six days, any longer and they will begin to discolour and lose their flavour. Store in a clean, dry, labelled airtight container. Should keep for 12-18 months.

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