H is for Hyssop

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

Hyssop in Hebrew means “holy herb” and is considered spiritually purifying. In Psalm 51:7, King David lamented his adultery and said, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” Inhaling or applying hyssop oil also is believed to repel evil spirits. Hebrews applied Passover blood with a hyssop branch in Exodus. When the soldiers offered Jesus a drink of vinegar at his crucifixion, they extended the soaked sponge with a hyssop branch. Hyssop is mentioned in ten places in the Old Testament and twice in the New.

This ancient member of the mint family hails from the eastern Mediterranean to central Asiatic areas. Greek physicians mention the herb, including Dioscorides. Ancient people made hyssop brooms. In William Shakespeare’s “Othello,” Iago said, “…Our bodies are our gardens, to the which of our wills are gardeners. So that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herb or distract it with many…”

Among botanists, the specific identity of biblical hyssop is disputed. However, by the Renaissance, Hyssopus Officinalis was an herb with violet-blue flowers and pleasant aroma that was steeped in tea, used as a condiment, and added to cologne. Medieval writers including Albertus Magnus mention it chiefly as an ornamental medicinal plant.

Alternative medicines tout hyssop as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-parasitic, antiseptic, and antiviral. It is used to ease colds, coughs, and fever, as a sedative, and as a diet aid. Like all members of the mint family, hyssop aids digestion.

In the language of flowers, hyssop means “cleanliness and sacrifice.” The plant attracts hummingbirds and bees, and beekeepers rubbed their hives with hyssop and other herbs to encourage their charges to stay. Women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries used to carry hyssop to church and sniff the blooms if fatigue overtook them.