Herbs: Garden Hyssop; History, Culinary Uses and Nutrition
This pretty herbaceous shrub from the mint family (Lamiaceae) has numerous uses in traditional folk medicine and is still used today by some to relieve symptoms of the common cold. As a culinary ingredient the flowers and leaves of garden hyssop, also known as common hyssop, are aromatic and have flavors reminiscent of mint, anise, rosemary and savory. Historically, hyssop is a sacred plant in Judaism and is featured in the writings of the Greek physician Hippocrates.
Hyssop (hyssopus officinalis) is a hardy semi-evergreen perennial that originated from North Africa, the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. This plant can grow to a height of 3 feet, has woody stems, small spike shaped leaves and tiny flowers. Hyssop flowers bloom from summer through autumn, when they emit a strong sent that is very attractive to bumblebees. Depending on the cultivar, the flowers can be violet (blue hyssop) pink (hyssop ‘roseus‘) and white (alba). This plant is different to 'anise hyssop' (Agastache foeniculum), another herb from the mint family that is native to North America. Although both plants are edible and have minty flavors.
To gardeners hyssop has a reputation as a good companion plant. If planted near cabbages it can lure away the cabbage butterfly and when planted near grape vines, the herb is a good source of pollen to attract bees and promote pollination, thereby increasing fruit production.
Hyssop has been mentioned in many Bible scriptures, where the herb is seen as an analogy for cleansing oneself spiritually, and as such was often part of purification rituals. Most notably hyssop is mentioned in the Passover story when Moses told the Israelites to gather bunches of hyssop, which they should dip in the blood of a lamb and sprinkle on the doorsteps and lintels of their houses. Moses also commanded them to remain in their homes until the following day. It is also written that a sprig of hyssop supported a sponge which was used to give Christ a drink of water, just prior to his crucifixion.
Experts believe the name hyssop was derived from the Greek word hyssopus and the Hebrew word esob, meaning herbs. In fact, hyssopus referred to several herbs and in particular Origanum maru or Syrian oregano, also known as Bible hyssop. So it is entirely possible that the hyssop mentioned in the Bible was not hyssopus officinalis but Syrian oregano. Both hyssop and Syrian oregano can be gathered to form dense bunches and used like a brush for rituals, as decribed in the Bible, although some experts argue that hyssopus offincinalis is not native to the Mediterranean region.
The idea of using hyssop as an herbal remedy could be traced back to the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 B.C) who recommended hyssop for chest complaints as a decongestant. The expectorant properties of hyssop, which relieve bronchitis and colds, are due to a type of terpenoid called marrubiin. A tonic made from hyssop is also a digestive and a carminative (to calm the nerves).
The playwright and poet William Shakespeare had a love of flowers and mentions the herb in Othello; So that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce; set hyssop...
The Culinary Uses of Hyssop: Both the leaves and flowers of hyssopus offincinalis are edible and have an aromatic minty taste. They can be used to add flavor and nutrition to practically any meal from soup to sauce or casserole. The flowers also add a splash of color to salads and fruit salads. However, hyssop is better known as hyssop tea, which should be made with dried hyssop flowers and leaves as the flavor is more intense. Hyssop tea can be slightly bitter so the addition of honey is recommended. Hyssop is also one of about 27 herbs and spices used to make Benedictine. The liqueur was originally made to a secret recipe by 16th century Benedictine monks.
The Nutritional Value of Hyssop: Research has demonstrated that hyssop is extremellly nutritious being an excellent source of antioxidant packed phytochemicals. These include a number of flavonoids such as limonene, caffeic acids, oleanolic acid and rosmarinic acid. This herb also contains the glycosides, hyssopin, camphene, pinanones and sabinene. The monoterpenes in hyssop include monoterpenols, sesquiterpenols and also tannins.
Flavonoids are non-essential nutrients which are found in the color pigments of plants. Generally speaking the brighter the color, the more beneficial the flavonoids. Flavonoid rich foods need to be consumed on a regular basis to obtain health benefits because, unlike vitamins, they are excreted after a few days. The flavonoids in hyssop leaves and flowers have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic and antiviral properties. Research suggests that drinking hyssop tea as part of a healthy diet can help lower LDL cholesterol and may help protect against heart disease. Because of its high phenolic content and possible health benefits, hyssop is also sold as an herbal supplement.
Common hyssop; photo by Bambo, published with creative commons licence at fotopedia.com. Primary image Hardwick Hall Herb Garden; this photo belongs to Kate Jewell and is published at geograph.org.uk with creative commons licence.