The striking flowering herb hyssop adds dark purple drama to gardens. An ancient plant, Hyssopus officinalis lends an unusual twist to salads, desserts and teas, and has other uses as well, ranging from protecting cabbages to treating whooping cough. While you may not need it for flavoring liqueurs, as the Benedictine monks have done since the 10th Century, chances are this spiky, fragrant herb will enchant you.
Common hyssop, a fairly bushy herb, grows to about 4 feet. It bears tiny purple flowers on long flower spikes. Hyssop's leaves are also small --- about ½ inch long --- and somewhat needle-like in appearance, although softer than rosemary needles. Short branches grow from the square stems. Rock hyssop grows to about 18 inches, and as its name indicates, makes a good ground covering in rock gardens.
Hyssop is one of the classic plants for including in a biblical garden. Perhaps its most well-known mention in the Bible comes from the Book of Psalms: "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean." Garden writer Lesley Bremness theorizes that the Lord's instructions in Leviticus to wash the lepers with hyssop shows evidence that the early physicians regarded hyssop an important antibiotic.
Hyssop also features prominently in Judaic tradition. The Torah, like the Bible, mentions the use of hyssop in the purification ritual using the ashes of the red heifer.
In the Garden
Grow hyssop at the back of an herb or perennial flower garden, or as an unusual privacy border. The plants like well-drained soil on the alkaline side. Plant hyssop 2 feet apart in regular gardens, or 1 foot apart to create a hedge.
Hyssop flowers are edible and make pretty garnishes for green and fruit salads. Leaves add punch to meals as well, but a little goes a long way. Rub them on poultry prior to cooking. Add them to homemade cranberry sauce. Bremness suggests topping apricot or peach pie filling with ¼ tsp. of the chopped leaves just before adding the crust.
Hyssop's reputation as a healing herb goes back for centuries. Infuse the dried or fresh flowering tops in hot water to make a tea said to be effective in treating breathing complaints and troublesome coughs caused by excess phlegm. The University of Maryland recommends it for whooping cough.
Modern healers, including the University of Maryland, warn pregnant women or people with a history of seizures not to ingest hyssop tea or use hyssop essential oils in aromatherapy massage.
Bremness recommends using hyssop leaves in a poultice for treating bruises and wounds.
Pungent hyssop makes an interesting choice for potpourris. Use it as a companion plant near grapevines to increase grape production, and near members of the cabbage family to repel the destructive cabbage moth.