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An ancient medicine with relevance for modern applications

Hyssop

Hyssopus officinalis L Lamiaceae

Very much favoured by bees, beautiful spikes of deep blue flowers adorn this herb which has aromatic, bitter, tonic and expectorant properties.

  • How does it feel?

    Hyssop is strongly aromatic, with sweet notes coming through the scent. The taste may not be to everyone’s delight, a warm bitterness with notes of mint, sage and lavender.

    It is a true education in the power of turmeric to taste it on its own, not integrated into a complex spicy meal. This is clearly a medicine for the gut, that also warms up the rest of our being.

  • What can I use it for?

    Hyssop is useful internally for upper and lower respiratory tract infections characterised by congestion and coughs. Used in feverish illnesses in children and as a carminative for a sluggish digestion, wind and colic. It is useful for a tonic action where there is exhaustion.

    It is often given in combination with other herbs providing a well-rounded remedy for the specific issue in question, whether it be bronchitis, nasopharyngeal catarrh, anxiety states or as a digestive tonic.

    Externally as a poultice it can be used to help reduce bruising and heal cuts.

  • Into the heart of Hyssop

    Hyssop has a long history of use as a prime remedy for respiratory conditions. However, the active constituents within it afford a range of uses, being as they are anti-inflammatory, expectorant, bitter, calming and antimicrobial.

    It is a peripheral vasodilator and promotes perspiration, thereby cooling down in feverish conditions.

    Useful for perking up the digestion and easing cramping and bloating, in Ayurvedic medicine it is sometimes given in the form of a fresh juice for such presentations.

  • Traditional uses

    Hyssop has a long history of use, both as a kitchen herb, flavouring food and drink, and within the medicine chest. Commonly used for conditions of the respiratory system in such presentations as coughs, chronic catarrh, asthma and bronchitis.

    It is diaphoretic, (promoting perspiration), especially when taken as a hot tea, so has often been used for feverish colds.

    Along with these applications it has a reputation as a tonic herb on other areas, such as the urinary tract, digestive and nervous systems. Grieve describes Hyssop tea as a “Grateful drink, well adapted to improve the tone of a feeble stomach”.

    The green tops of the plant were given as a tea or within soup given to asthma sufferers and It has also been prescribed for anxiety states and hysteria.

  • Traditional actions

    Anticatarrhal, expectorant, astringent, bitter, antimicrobial, carminative, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, febrifuge (fever remedy), sedative and spasmolytic.

  • What practitioners say

    Respiratory system:  Hyssop combines well with mullein or liquorice for stubborn coughs. Taken in combination with more antimicrobial lung herbs such as thyme, garlic or elecampane it is excellent in cases of bronchitis.  It is a herb that fell out of favour in some traditions, however, it deserves to be back in the limelight for its excellent ability to induce sweating in fevers, provide a powerful expectorant activity and act as a tonic assisting in convalescence.

    For the common cold it combines well in tea form with elderflower, boneset, peppermint and yarrow and it can be beneficial for asthma, being anti-inflammatory and relaxing smooth muscle constriction.

    Digestive system:  The bitter terpenoid marrubiin has a stimulating effect on the digestive tract, increasing motility and secretions, including those of the liver. The oils contribute to the carminative activity helping in bloating, wind and lack of appetite. It has a tonic activity which has a beneficial effect on the whole body.

    Skin: The flowering tops have been made into poultices or infused in oil and used for cuts and bruises. This application can also be of use for joint and muscle pain.

    In children: Hyssop can be given for feverish colds and persistent coughs in children in combination with other appropriate herbs such as lime blossom, elderflower, calendula and chamomile. It has a calming action which adds to its use here.

  • Did you know?

    The name hyssop appears as a translation of the Hebrew word Ezov in some translations of the Bible, and refers to its use in ritual cleansing, ‘Purge me with Hyssop and I shall be clean’, however researchers have suggested that it is not likely to be Hyssopus officinalis, which is not native to Palestine, rather it may have been a species of oregano or the caper plant.

    Dried hyssop is sometimes used in the herb blend Za’atar. The leaves and young shoots can be eaten raw in salads or used as flavouring in soups and stews, but use sparingly as they are strong in taste!

    Used to flavour liqueurs such as Chartreuse and Absinthe, it is key in providing the green colouring in many version of the latter.

    The essential oil of hyssop is highly valued by perfumers and the honey produced from hyssop flowers is considered to be of excellent quality with a wonderful aroma.

Additional information

  • Safety

    Hyssop is contraindicated in pregnancy and lactation. It is advisable to avoid its use in those suffering from epileptic fits.

    It is important to stress the difference between taking a medicine made using the whole herb as opposed to the extracted volatile (essential) oils, which are much stronger when isolated from the myriad other beneficial constituents within the whole plant.

    The essential oil is subject to legal restrictions in some countries. It is neurotoxic at a dose that can vary amongst individuals when given internally, this is owing to the high levels of volatile oils such as thujone, pinocamphone and isopinocamphone. Excessive doses can cause epileptic fits and death.

    The whole-herb use is much safer and the more usual way for hyssop to be taken.

  • Dosage

    Dried dose for tea: 2-4 g three times daily

    1:5 tincture: 2-4 ml three times daily

  • Constituents

    • Flavonoids: apigenin, quercetin, diosmin, luteolin
    • Terpinoids: marrubiin, oleanolic and ursolic acids
    • Phenolic compounds: chlorogenic, protocatechuic, ferulic, syringic and caffeic acids
    • Volatile oils: pinocamphone, isopinocamphone, pinocarvone, beta-pinene, camphor, thujone
    • Resin and tannins
hyssop illustration
  • Recipe

    Hyssop and white horehound cough lozenges

    This recipe calls for quite a bit of sweetening due to the bitterness of both the herbs, but the white horehound in particular.

    Ingredients:

    • Fresh hyssop
    • Fresh white horehound
    • Sugar (or honey)
    • Butter or coconut oil
    • hyssop/horehound infusion

    Method:

    • Pop a good handful of equal parts fresh hyssop and white horehound into a pan with a cup of boiling water. Bring to the boil and then remove from the stove.
    • Let the herbs Infuse for ten minutes.
    • In a large pan put: 2 cups of sugar or 1 and a half cups of honey, 25 g of butter or coconut oil, half a cup of the hyssop/horehound infusion.
    • Stir well as it comes to the boil and boil for five minutes or until you can drop a small amount into cold water and it forms a hard ball.
    • Pour into a greased baking tray or onto grease-proof paper and as it sets, cut into squares or lozenge-shapes and store in a jar until needed for coughs and colds.
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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