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Hyssop

( Originally Published 1933 )



HYSSOPUS OFFICINALIS, L.

Labiatae Perennial

Hyssop is a perennial subshrub native to Europe and temperate Asia, and it has escaped and become naturalized in Michigan. It is a most attractive, fragrant plant, with its dark, sturdy-looking foliage, and flowering spikes of either pink, white, or blue, which bloom over a long period. In my garden it grows from fifteen to eighteen inches high, but in Europe it grows much taller.

Root. The roots are woody and spreading.

Stem. The stems are much branched from a woody base, angular and covered with a bloom.

Leaf. The leaves are dull, dark, and glisten with the dots of the fragrant oil. They are opposite, each pair at right angles to the one above, slender, entire, rounder at the tips and curve up from the stem in a happy fashion. They taste sharp, resinous, and camphory, and smell sagy and sweet, while the flowers smell more spicy and balsamic.

Flower. The tiny flowers, one-half an inch or less long, are in loose terminal spikes about five inches long, made up of whorls of three flowers opposite to another group of three. The three upper petals and the two lower ones in the type are a dark blue with deep blue stamens topped with bronze anthers, which extend beyond the corolla. The five-parted calyx is purplish-green and the sepals are united almost to the tips, which are pointed. The flowers open at the end of June and keep on into September. The plants smell strongest just before flowering, of an aromatic, musty, slightly animal smell, which improves when the plant is dried. At Peekskill, however, they are less fragrant than they must be abroad.

Variety. Hyssopus officinalis var. alba has white flowers which look cool with the dark green foliage. Hyssopus officinalis var. ruber is a good shade of rose-pink without blue in it, and is grown in quantities at a nursery in Maine. Hyssopus officinalis var. cristata has the leaves notched at the margins, rounded at the tips, and turning up straight instead of in a curve as in the type. The surface of the leaves is dull underneath, shiny above, and a very dark green. It died over the winter in my garden. Parkinson speaks of a "yellow or golden hyssop" which is so handsome that the ladies wore it "on their heads and on their arms with as much delight as any fine flowers can give." This must be a variegated kind.

HISTORY AND LEGEND

Hyssop was so frequently mentioned in the Bible that Sturtevant thinks it must have grown wild in Syria and Egypt. In Leviticus, Chapter XIV, hyssop is mentioned as a purifying plant used by the priests to cleanse lepers. At the Passover, Moses commanded the Israelites to take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood of the lamb to sprinkle the lintel and doorposts, after which none were to pass out until morning. David mentions it in a prayer, "Purge me with Hyssop and I shall be clean," Psalm LI, 7. Saint John wrote in Chapter XIX, 29, at the Crucifixion, "There was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a sponge with vinegar and put it upon Hyssop and put it in His mouth ..." It was known to the East Indians, and both the Arabs and Jews venerated the plant. Dioscorides recommended boiling it with rue and honey for a cough. It is said to keep off the evil eye and evil magic in Sicily.

USES

Hyssop is said to give a fine scent and taste to honey and should be planted near beehives.

Medicine. It is in the "National Standard Dispensary" as aromatic, stimulant, and diaphoretic, and is taken as an infusion. A tea made from the leaves and flowering tops is given for troubles of the chest, and to help expectoration of the phlegm, and in France it is used in a preparation for healing wounds.

Perfume. An essential oil extracted from the green portions is fragrant, and used in making melissa water, and in English eau de cologne, and, like clary sage, gives a note to perfumes today.

Food. The leaves and tips have been a condiment to supply a bitter taste. Hyssop has gone into the preparation of the liqueurs of the monks of Chartreux and the Trappist Fathers. It is a favorite tea in France. Eleanour Rohde says it enters in French and Italian cookery, and that sometimes the flowers were used in soups and strewn on salads.

CULTURE

Hyssop comes readily from seed, either indoors or right out in the garden. Once started the plants grow well and are hardy through the winter. In Europe one is advised to renew the plants every three or four years. Most growers say hyssop prefers a chalky soil, but any well prepared and not too fertile soil seems agreeable.



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