Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
by Lindsey Hesseltine
Part used: leaves and flowers
Energetics: warming, diffusive
Taste: bitter, pungent, diffusive
Actions: diaphoretic, antispasmodic, expectorant, carminative, nervine
Constituents: volatile oils (pinocamphone, camphor, phellandrene, terpenes, thujone, limonene, pinene, geraniol, borneol, bornyl acetate) diterpenes, triterpenoid saponins, volatile oil, flavonoids, hyssopin, tannins, resin
Plant characteristics and propagation
Hyssopus officinalis is an aromatic, woody-based, shrubby perennial that grows in a bushy clump 18-24” tall. It is grown in both culinary herb gardens (even though it is not often used this way today) and in ornamental gardens. It remains evergreen in more temperate climates but thrives in zones 4-9. It is native to the southern and eastern Europe, but has naturalized along roads in some parts of the U.S and across the globe. The leaves are dark green, lanceolate, aromatic, and grow to about 1” long. The flowers are fragrant, two-lipped, tubular, purple-blue flowers with protruding stamens. There are white and pink ornamental varieties as well. They bloom in whorls of 6-8 flowers on long dense terminal spikes in mid to late summer.
Hyssop prefers well-draining soil but once established is a hard, drought-tolerant plant that can survive and propagate in even poorer soils. It is easily propagated by seed, cuttings or root division. Hyssop is a great attractor of bees and butterflies making a great addition to ornamental, hedge or container gardens.
Hyssop’s history ventures back for some time to the early years of the Greek. Roman Emperor Charles I actually created an edict that hyssop should be planted in all physick gardens after having his own health improved from it. It is also mentioned in Psalm 51:7 in which it is written “purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean” thought to be related to the spread of leprosy at the time. Hyssop was used as a cleaning agent in the middle east and the dried plant was used as a brush to clean temples and unclean persons. Hyssop has been a standard plant in the home garden throughout the centuries with its value and use seeming to fluctuate between culinary spice and medicine. It was first brought to England in by Gerard in 1596 so most documentation hails from there with little on its use here in North America. The Cherokee used an infusion of the plant to bring on the menses and at the first sign of fever. They also used a syrup to bring on colds and coughs, to allay symptoms of asthma as well as other diseases of the lung and chest.
Specific indications and clinical application.
Hyssop is one of the unique herbs that has been described over and over again as both a stimulating and relaxing expectorant. It seems almost contradictory but hyssop is truly anything but. It’s diffusive, almost acrid taste lets you know this herb can help move those internal weak fluids that need to be moved out. Hyssop is a classic diaphoretic thanks to its aromatic attributes resembling that of other mint family herbs. It is most commonly employed in colds, coughs or chronic asthma in which the lungs have become damp and congested. The tissues and muscles in the lungs and bronchial tree may seem generally dry and weak with the only mucus that arises being generally thin and white.
While the diffusive properties may seem to be drying, the diaphoretic action promotes the movement of fluids by bringing moisture to the surface of the lungs and skin as well as acting as a diuretic to move fluid out through the kidneys and urinary tract. It is commonly recommended in the early stages of a cold or influenza in order to draw the fever out quickly and prevent the disease from settling into the tissues for a full blown attack. Hyssop can also be useful for children or adults in which a continued low-grade fever is present as well as help allay nervousness or irritability that may accompany the illness.
Hyssop seems to have a general affinity for the lungs where it is traditionally used as a syrup (made with honey) for bronchitis, chronic lung infections, and asthma. When employed as a syrup it seems to have a function towards the end of the illness when the lungs and bronchioles have become tired, dried out, and there is a lack of mucus to expectorate in the final resemblance of disease.
As previously mentioned, it also seems to be a useful ally as an infusion at the beginning of an illness when a low chronic fever is present and the feeble body can’t mount a proper fever response to battle a cold or influenza. Here it seems to help open the pores and draw moisture out of the tissue increasing perspiration on the skin as well as lubricating the canals of the lungs and urinary systems. This increase in secretion is also part of its action on the digestive tract to help stimulate feeble digestion according to Maude Grieve (1971). Its aromatic qualities may indicate some of its effects as a carminative.
This herb also has been found valuable for topical use thanks to a doctrine of signatures. Culpeper specifically mentions its use to “take away the black and blue spots and marks that come by strokes, bruises or falls”, the color that much resembles that of the flower.
In 2014, a study on mice showed some promising results for hyssop as an ally in fighting chronic asthma. The experimental group with hyssop showed a decrease in eosinophils in the epithelial lining of the lungs, reduced IgE levels, and reduced mucous secretion from epithelial cells. All of these indicate that hyssop has a immune regulating effect on asthma as a type I allergic disease. The mice treated with hyssop also had higher levels of IgG which is generally decreased in chronic asthma patients. Of course dosing and the fact these are mice lead us to question some clinical relevance here but we have some idea of how hyssop might benefit those suffering from allergy related asthma.
A similar study regarding the effect of hyssop on the lungs showed that hyssop, as well as the control dexamethasone, prevented pathological changes in the epithelial lining of the lungs including narrowed airways from thickening of the smooth muscle due to increased ECM building, increased goblet cells contributing to excess mucous secretions, and collagen deposition in the lung interstitium (between the alveoli and blood vessels). Interestingly, hyssop also helped prevent the development of particular behaviors including anxiety exhibition, nose scratching, lethargy and shortness of breath that occurred in the control group in response to the challenge.
There are articles available on hyssop regarding its effect on expression of genes involved in T helper cell response. It is thought that it works by balancing Th1 and Th2 which has a potential effect on the type of dominant immune response seen in some individuals. Th1 dominant is often associated with organ specific autoimmune conditions via its relationship with INF-gamma and Th2 dominant is more often associated with parasitic infections and allergy related immune response due to its relationship with IL-4. An imbalance in these T helper cells may lead to an overproduction of specific inflammatory markers seen in various diseases.
Tincture (1:5): 1-4ml three times daily
Tea: 3-9g infusion
Oxymel: Fill jar ½ way with dried herb or full with fresh herb. Then fill the jar ⅓ of the way with honey and top off with apple cider vinegar. Let this macerate for 2-4 weeks, strain and bottle. (See complete recipe here: http://learningherbs.com/remedies-recipes/bronchitis-home-remedy)
Classic combinations for hyssop include:
Peter Holmes (1998): for stubborn asthmatic conditions
- Mullein, Hyssop, Licorice
Hool (1922): as a syrup for cough, bronchitis and asthma
- Hyssop, Black Horehound, Marshmallow, (Comfrey)
Henriette Kress (2005): as a syrup for cough or bronchitis
- Peppermint, hyssop, thyme, horehound
Maude Grieve (1971): recipe for hyssop tea:
- quarter of an oz of dried hyssop flowers in pint of boiling water for ten minutes, sweeten with honey and take a wine glassful three times daily for debility of the chest.
Lindsey is an Iowa native with a passion for helping individuals navigate the ever-growing field of wellness and preventative care for both themselves and their canine companions. She has completed her Master of Science from the Maryland University of Integrative Health and continues to expand her knowledge and practice at the Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine. You’ll generally find her wandering through the woods with her four-legged companion attempting to ID every plant along the way, attending the local theatre or in the apothecary measuring and mixing new herbal blends for her practice, Prairie Rose Herbals (www.prairieroseherbals.com).
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*Image retrieved September 8, 2016 from: