The Many Benefits (Religious, Medicinal, Culinary) of Hyssop in Ancient and Modern Times

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. – תְּחַטְּאֵנִי בְאֵזוֹב וְאֶטְהָר;    תְּכַבְּסֵנִי, וּמִשֶּׁלֶג אַלְבִּין – Psalms Chapter 51 תְּהִלִּים

Hyssop

by Sudhir Ahluwalia

The botanical source of hyssop, as with other Biblical plants, is shrouded in debate. The Bible mentions hyssop many times (Leviticus 14:1–7). A brush made of hyssop branches was used to mark houses of the Jews with lamb’s blood to protect them from impending plague. David mentions hyssop in Psalm 51:7: “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” There are references to hyssop in the burning of the heifer (Numbers 19:6) and for sprinkling on a dead person (Numbers 19:18). In 1 Kings 4:33, Solomon “treated about trees from the cedar that is in Libanus (Lebanon), unto the hyssop that cometh out of the wall.”

Rabbi Saada Gaon (882–942 AD) and Maimonides (1155–1204 AD) believed that Marjarano syriaca syn origanum syriacum syn origanum maru is the true hyssop, because it is identical to the Israeli za’atar. In Arabic, za’atar refers to marjoram and other genera in its family with similar scent and taste (e.g., thyme, satureja, savory) that are often used as marjoram substitutes. It is also called ezov in Hebrew and Biblical hyssop in English. Fleischer et al. (1988) concluded that Biblical hyssop was not Hyssopus officinalis, or azob in Greek, which means “holy herb.”

Dioscorides wrote that hyssop was used to clean temples, similar to the Biblical descriptions of its use in Leviticus 14:1–7, 33–53 and Psalm 51:7. On the other hand, the Encyclopedia Britannica (2015) states, “Ezov, the hyssop of the Bible, a wall-growing plant used in ritual cleansing of lepers, is not Hyssopus officinalis … it may have been a species of caper or savory.” Capparis spinosa is a caper found in the region. Stanley (2001), Balfour (1897), and several other authors support the idea that hyssop was C. spinosa.

Marjarano syriaca syn origanum syriacum syn origanum maru. M. syriaca is a perennial shrub that grows to a height of 30 to 60 cm. It bears small white and purple flowers. M. syriaca grows extensively in the eastern Mediterranean, including Israel, and from northern Africa to Turkey, though rarely in the Egyptian Sinai region. It is a hardy species that grows in fallow, degraded, and rocky sites. Despite its hardiness, overexploitation has led to declining numbers. It is a legally protected species in Israel.

The leaves are used in the Middle East and Europe as a cooking spice in salad dressings, vegetables, and oils. Its aroma is similar to oregano, thyme, sage, and rosemary. The flavor comes out best when it is added at the end of the cooking process. The aromatic seeds are used in baked goods, sweets, and drinks, and fresh or dried leaves are used in herbal tea.

The famous culinary spice oregano also belongs to the genus Marjarano. Crowfoot and Baldensperger (1932) point out that the Samaritans have used this herb in the Passover ritual for more than 2,000 years. Furthermore, it is often observed growing out of rock masonry walls in Palestine, and it grows in the vicinity of Jesus’ crucifixion site. According to the Bible, a branch dipped with vinegar was raised to the lips of Jesus on the cross. After receiving it, he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). He then bowed his head and died. Such a branch would need to be long enough to reach Jesus’ head, raised about one meter above the ground, thus ruling out M. syriaca. Yet, religious scholars argue that the cross may have been short, allowing a shorter branch to reach.

Traditionally, the plant is regarded as an antiseptic stimulant with antispasmodic properties. It is a good general tonic and is used to treat a variety of digestive and respiratory disorders. It is not recommended for use by pregnant women, as it can stimulate menstruation, though it is regarded as safe to consume in small quantities in food.

Chewing the leaves is said to help alleviate toothache. The species is used to treat muscular pain, arthritis, stiff joints, and sprains. The antioxidant properties of oregano have been studied and validated (Kizil et al., 2010). Dasgupta and Hammett-Stabler (2011) claim that M. syriaca can treat pain and respiratory ailments. Chieko et al. (2015) show positive results for the cytotoxic properties of the plant.

An essential oil is extracted from the leaves and flowers by steam distillation and yields from 0.4 to 0.7 percent. Oil of marjoram is used in perfume, soaps, hair products, and food. Major volatiles and semivolatiles isolated from the plant include α-pinene, β-myrecene, o-cymene, p-cymene, γ-terpinene, thymol, and carvacrol, many of which attract honey bees. The most active volatile ingredient, thymol, is used extensively for its antiseptic, antifungal, and antibacterial properties in over-the-counter mouthwash, cough syrups, and expectorants.

Hyssopus officinalis. H. officinalis is a perennial shrub that grows up to two feet. The stems have a woody base, and the plant bears white fragrant flowers. The plant grows in the wild in the Middle East, southern Europe, and parts of central Asia. It is a naturalized species in the United Kingdom, and immigrants brought it to North America. The plant grows in rocky, dry, and stony locations and in the cracks of old walls. It is a hardy species and can withstand desiccation. Beekeepers use the plant to attract bees and produce a pleasantly scented honey.

Harvesting is often done with flowers intact. The shoot is cut and dried in a cool, shady, and airy place to prevent discoloration. The spice, which has a sage and mint flavor, can be preserved for up to one and half years. Fresh and dried herbs and flowers are used as a spice in salads, soups, dessert, liqueurs, cakes, and other bakery products. It is widely used with wormwood, fennel, and anise to flavor absinthe. The leaves are used in Eau de Cologne and in liqueurs, such as Chartreuse. The spice is also used in perfumery, soaps, and cosmetics.

Medicinal properties of H. officinalis are also similar to M. syriaca. The herb is used in tonics for its calming effects. A poultice made from the herbs is used to heal wounds and reduce swelling caused by sprains. Tea made from the leaves is used to treat flatulence and stomach ache. Hyssop is believed to irritate the mucous membranes, thus herbalists recommend its use only when the infection of the respiratory tract has subsided. The plant should not be used by pregnant women: when ingested in large quantities, it can induce miscarriage.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, a hot infusion with vapors was used to treat ear ailments. The bruised leaves were rubbed on rheumatic joints to relieve pain. The juice from the leaves was used as an insect repellent and to remove lice and intestinal worms. Some people use hyssop as a gargle and bath oil (WebMD). The muscle-relaxing property has been indicated in trials on guinea pigs by Lu et al. (2002). The antimicrobial, antifungal, and antioxidant properties have been tested and validated in animal trials (Kizil et al., 2010). The U.S. FDA declared hyssop “Generally Recognized as Safe,” although convulsions in rats have been observed during experimental trials.

Just like M. syriaca, an essential oil is extracted from the shoots by steam distillation. The oil is pale yellow to brownish yellow in color, and average yield is about 0.6 percent. The oil is used in aromatherapy but only under expert supervision, as it can cause convulsions. According to Mitic et al. (2000), the main components of the oil are cis-pinocamphone (42.9 percent), trans-pinocamphone (14.1 percent), germacrene-D-11-ol (5.7 percent), and elemol (5.6 percent).

The oil has a camphoraceous, herbaceous, spicy, earthy, and woodsy fragrance. It blends well with angelica, basil, bergamot, cajeput, camphor, celery, sage, clove, eucalyptus, fennel, geranium, lavender, lemon, lime, myrtle, orange, rosemary, and sage (www.ElizabethVanBuren.com). It is used to treat skin, digestive, and respiratory ailments. The oil may be used in a nebulizer diffuser and in acupressure and reflexology.

 

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