An ancient aromatic herb used for spiritual, culinary, and medicinal purposes, hyssop has long been touted for its many potentially beneficial properties. The plant was regarded as a symbol of purification in the Bible, used as a decorative garden plant and culinary herb in early modern Britain, and relied on as a medicinal aid for digestive and respiratory health in traditional folk medicine. Read more about hyssop in this article.
What is Hyssop?
There are several varieties of hyssop plants. For the purpose of this article, hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) is a bushy, semi-evergreen herb belonging to the genus Hyssopus of the Lamiaceae (mint) family. It is native to Asia, but has been naturalized to grow in Europe and in parts of the U.S. The sun-loving herbaceous perennial can grow up to 2-feet-high in well-drained soil and has a sweet, warm scent ranging from licorice to bubblegum. (1, 2) Hyssop has a short, fibrous rhizome with a stalk that erects from a woody base and divides into branching stems with flowers that grow on one side and bloom at the top. These clusters of small violet-blue flowers blossom in the summer. Their nectar attracts bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies, which keep crops such as cabbage and broccoli from bug infestation. Hyssopus officinalis should not be confused with other species of hyssop plants, such the giant hyssop, hedge hyssop, prairie hyssop, or wild hyssop. (3, 4, 5)
Common Hyssop Uses
The hyssop plant is highly regarded for its spiritual, culinary, and medicinal properties. In religious ceremonies, hyssop stems or twigs are used to symbolize cleansing and purification. Due to its attractive features and unique scent, hyssop is also a common ornamental herb grown in home gardens and may be harvested, dried, and used in potpourri. In the kitchen, the flowering tops of the plant are used to flavor salads and soups, although the herb has fallen out of favor for culinary uses in recent years. Hyssop is also an important part of the formulations in chartreuse and absinthe liqueurs. (6)
In herbal remedies, its leaves and flowers are the most often cultivated for culinary and medicinal uses. The fresh or dried flowering tops of the plant are steeped in warm water to make an infusion (tea) that the user may drink up to three times daily, or it may be taken as a liquid tincture in small doses (1-2 mL up to three times daily). Hyssop tea is an old-fashioned herbal remedy used to support nose, throat, lung, and digestive health, acting as a natural expectorant to help expel phlegm and break up congestion in the lungs. It also helps to calm an upset stomach. It is often blended with other herbs and sweetened with honey for flavoring, because the herb has a slightly bitter taste. Its fresh green tops are also sometimes boiled in soup to support optimal respiratory health in people with asthma. (7)
As a purgative, hyssop has a mild laxative effect that helps relax the gastrointestinal tract and eliminate waste. It also helps relieve excess gas. In addition, hyssop promotes perspiration to help the body eliminate toxins through the skin. The herb may also support a healthy mood by helping to calm anxiety. Hyssop is also believed to act as a natural expectorant by promoting secretions in the lungs to support healthy mucus membranes and loosen phlegm. For these purposes and more, hyssop can be found in soothing throat sprays, lozenges, and dietary supplements. (8, 9)
For external use, an extract of the flowering tops (made from boiling the plant and extracting the nutrients) is used as a skin wash to help heal burns and temporarily relieve skin inflammation. The fresh crushed leaves of hyssop may also promote the healing of bruises and provide temporary relief from insect bites. When added to a therapeutic bath, hyssop preparations may temporarily relieve muscle pain. Hyssop added to a hair rinse may protect against head lice. (10)
When steam-distilled, the hyssop plant produces volatile oil (also known as essential oil), which is sometimes used in aromatherapy for bronchial health support. Breathing in the hot vapors of a steaming extract of hyssop may temporarily relieve symptoms related to an earache. It’s also used as a fragrance in soaps and cosmetics. In fact, some perfumers value hyssop essential oil more than the oil of lavender. (11)
Hyssop Oil vs Extract – How It Works
The chemical compounds of the volatile oil from hyssop leaves and flowers are believed to have potential healing properties, particularly natural antimicrobial and antiviral properties, which may make it effective in supporting a healthy immune system. (12) The volatile oil from hyssop contains camphene, pinenes, terpinene, the glycoside hyssopin, tannins, acids, resin, gum, marrubiin (a bitter substance also found in white horehound, Marrubium vulgare), and flavonoids (including diosmin and hesperidin). (13) Flavonoids are part of the polyphenol class of phytonutrients (plant chemicals) that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, helping to support a healthy internal response. They are often used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. The particular flavonoids in hyssop have been studied for their potential ability to support respiratory health, digestion, and wound care. (14)
Hyssop essential oil is obtained through distillation of the plant, a process that leaves behind a small amount of volatile liquid. One of the volatile chemicals in hyssop essential oil, pinocamphone, is mildly toxic and should never be consumed orally. However, hyssop essential oil – when diluted and used topically or in aromatherapy – does seem to have some potential effect on respiratory wellness and other health issues. (15) Essential oils are generally used for therapeutic purposes, such as for aromatherapy in a diffuser or for massage, in topical compresses, external spritzers, or in baths. For instance, hyssop baths are sometimes used to help the body rid itself of toxins.
On the other hand, hyssop plant extracts are very different from hyssop essential oil. Liquid extracts from plants such as hyssop are typically obtained through cold-pressing, maceration, or alcohol soaked liquid isolation. Extracts of the plant’s flowering tops are then used for some culinary or medicinal purposes. Hyssop flower (aerial) parts can be taken orally in a dietary supplement in capsule or liquid extract form. Freshly dried hyssop leaves may also be used topically to help support wound care or steeped in a warm water as an herbal infusion, or tea, for upper respiratory system and digestive system support. (16)
A Brief History of Hyssop
The name “Hyssop” is Greek in origin. The Hebrew people called this herb Azob, or Ezov, meaning “holy herb.” It is called Zufa in Iran. Hyssop essential oil, distilled from the leaves of the plant, was considered a sacred oil and used as a cleansing herb for temples and other sacred places in ancient Egypt, Israel, and Greece. (17, 18)
In the Bible, hyssop is suggested for ceremonial use and as a purgative for elimination of the bowels. Within the Scriptures, it is also a symbol of cleansing and purification and is mentioned in this famous saying: “Purge me with Hyssop, and I shall be clean.” (19, 20) Specifically, hyssop, is referred to in ten places in the Old Testament and two in the New Testament. For instance, it is mentioned in regard to Passover (in Exodus 12:22), ceremonial cleansing from skin disease such as Leprosy (in Leviticus 14), and the red heifer offering (in Numbers 19), among other instances. Hyssop is described as growing on a wall (I Kings 4:33), and its use mainly recommended as a purgative. (21) However, the hyssop referred to in the Bible was most likely not the same as Hyssopus officinalis, which is an uncommon plant to Palestine. Instead, the hyssop mentioned in the Bible was more likely referring to a species of caper (Capparis spinosa), a common shrub in the Middle East, or to Origanum syriacum, a plant known in English as Syrian hyssop and a relative of the kitchen herbs oregano and marjoram. (22)
In ancient Rome, hyssop as Hyssopus officinalis was used in an herbal wine preparation and used to protect users from the plague. In ancient Greece, the physicians Galen and Hippocrates used hyssop to support healthy bronchial function. In the Middle Ages, Hyssopus officinalis was an herb used to flavor a hearty stew. It is described as having a sweet scent and a warm but bitter taste. John Gerard, a London-based surgeon and apothecary, and author of the Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, brought hyssop to England in 1597, where it soon became a staple in many ornamental gardens. Later, in the early 17th and 18th centuries, hyssop tea and tincture were used to treat diseases of the liver. (23) Historically, a tea made of the leaves of hyssop and sweetened with honey was a common remedy in traditional folk medicine for nose, throat, and lung health support. Hyssop leaves were also sometimes applied externally to bruises to promote healing. It was also used to repel insects. Many of these hyssop uses are still common today. (24)
Potential Health Benefits of Hyssop
Hyssop May Help
- Support normal, healthy respiration
- Support healthy mucus membranes in throat and lungs
- Support a healthy, balanced digestive system
- Promote optimal immune function
- Promote wound care
Hyssop has many potential health benefits. Hyssop is considered a natural expectorant, which may help support a healthy upper respiratory system. It is also believed to help temporarily relieve the symptoms of an upset stomach by relieving gas and supporting normal bowel movements. Other medicinal uses for hyssop have included intestinal problems such as liver and gallbladder conditions, intestinal pain, and loss of appetite. It has been used for respiratory problems such as coughs, the common cold, respiratory infections, sore throat, and asthma. In addition, people have used hyssop for urinary tract infections, poor circulation, menstrual discomfort, and skin conditions, such as burns, bruises, and frostbite. However, there are not enough human clinical studies to confirm if hyssop has an effect on any of these health conditions. (25, 26)
One research study on hyssop’s antiviral properties, published in 2002, confirmed the results of similar studies done a decade earlier, which found that hyssop leaf extract demonstrates strong anti-HIV activity. However, none of these studies tested human subjects. (27) Another research study conducted a chemical analysis of the flavonoids in extracts from the aerial parts of Hyssopus officinalis, as well as the composition of its essential oil and total phenolic content. The study concluded that “hyssop possesses valuable antioxidant properties for culinary and possible medicinal use.” In addition, studies have confirmed the antioxidant, anti-platelet, and antifungal activities of essential oil derived from Hyssopus officinalis. (28) However, more scientific research is needed to see how hyssop may affect the health of the human body. If you’re curious about the potential health benefits of hyssop, why not try it for yourself?
How to Prepare Hyssop
To prepare a hyssop tea or infusion, boil 2.5 cups of water and then add 3 tbsp dried, or twice as much fresh, hyssop leaf and flowers in a glass container. Cover and infuse/steep the tea for 10–15 minutes. Then strain out the herbs and drink a cup of warm hyssop tea up to three times a day. For a sweeter taste, add a natural sweetener such as stevia, or organic honey. You may also add white horehound to help promote the expectorant effect of the tea during seasonal health challenges, or add sage (Salvia officinalis) to soothe a sore throat. (29)
To prepare a liquid hyssop tincture, mix 4 oz of fresh or dry, powdered hyssop herb with 1 pint of brandy, gin, or vodka, in a tightly-capped, dark glass bottle, covering the plant parts. Place the mixture in a dark, cool place for two weeks, shaking it a few times daily. Then strain the mixture. A standard dose is 1–2 mL of the tincture up to three times a day. (30)
Hyssop essential oil should only be prescribed by doctors or by reputable aromatherapy practitioners. Do not ingest hyssop essential oil. When used topically, only moderate amounts of hyssop essential oil should be used. A few drops of the oil may be diluted in a carrier oil and rubbed on the skin to help heal minor wounds or burns, or rub it on the chest to help relieve congestion. The oil may also be used as an additive to bath water to support a healthy mood and support bronchial health by clearing the breathing passageways. (31)
Typical side effects of hyssop may include nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, anxiety, or tremors. Do not use the herb continuously in any form for long periods of time. Hyssop oil should never be given to children. As with any herb, consult with your healthcare provider before use. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should not use any form of hyssop. (32)
How to Buy Hyssop
Hyssop may be found in health food stores such as Natural Healthy Concepts, in capsule form or as a liquid extract. Depending on the supplement, it may be taken up to two or three times daily. Be sure to read and follow the instructions on the nutritional label. Order hyssop from NaturalHealthyConcepts.com. It may make a difference to your health! (33)