Name: Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Otherwise known as: Issopo Celestina
Habitat: A shrub member of the Labiateae family growing to 60cm in well-drained soil in southern Europe. It has sharp, aromatic leaves growing on square stems that terminate in whorls of flowers that range from white to deep purple.
What does it do: The name is derived from the Greek translation of the Hebrew esob, although there is some doubt whether they are synonymous. It is native to the Mediterranean region and will grow freely in poor conditions favouring dry, sunny sites. It is easily propagated from cuttings or seeds. The plant produces a white mould on its leaves that resembles penicillin. When harvested it gives off the smell of young goats. Hyssop is renowned as a companion plant that increases the fruit yield on vines and for repelling cabbage white butterflies.
Hippocrates and Dioscorides valued it highly and regarded it as a virtual cure-all. In ancient times it was used to treat leprosy and to cleanse and purify sacred places. The best known biblical reference is Psalm 51 – Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.
Since ancient times hyssop has been infused to treat infections of the respiratory system particularly where there is excessive mucus: the herb gently stimulates expectoration and aids recovery. It has sedative properties that are effective in treating asthma in adults and children, especially when exacerbated by mucus congestion. The British and American Herbal Pharmacopoeia recommend hyssop as specific against bronchitis and the common cold.
In the kitchen it can be used in soups, stews ,casseroles, sauces and seasonings: the properties aid digestion of fatty meats. It also features as a flavouring for chartreuse.
An essential oil is extracted by steam distillation. It is antiseptic, antiviral, bactericidal, hypertensive, expectorant and sedative. The pinocamphone content renders the oil toxic and should only be used under professional instruction. Hyssop oil should be avoided in pregnancy and by epileptics.
A few years ago, an oncologist in the West Indies discovered that a group of patients suffering from Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a viral cancer which attacks AIDS victims, were in remission when the disease should have been progressive. He found that the patients were receiving treatment from a local Obiah woman who was administering a daily dose of hyssop tea mixed with senna pods.