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So strong is the scent of hyssop that at one time women pressed it into their psalm books to keep themselves from falling asleep during church services. I had a bit of a problem the day I carried a sprig of it into church with me.
When I was being taught about plants and their histories and uses, the information became scrambled in my mind during my early years. At one point Aunt Bett might be telling me about the Cherokee use of a plant and the next minute she could be telling me that it was used by Moses in the Old Testament. Over the years, my mind learned to categorize, but there were some interesting moments before that happened. Learning is an interesting thing; some of us learn by memorization, and some learn by association. I don't remember memorizing any thing except states and capitals until I had a ninth grade English teacher who introduced me to poetry and quotations, and from then on, I memorized everything I wanted to remember. I did not always memorize things I needed to know, but I always memorized those things I wanted to know. There is a difference, you see, and hyssop is a perfect example.
Hyssop, Hyssopus officinalis, is a member of the mint family. It grows in dry fields and along roadsides. It is native to Eurasia, but is naturalized in North America from Quebec to Montana as far south as North Carolina. It is a perennial shrubby herb, growing to 2 feet tall, with slender, stiff stems. The opposite leaves are narrow and pointed. Blue to purplish flowers appear in small one sided clusters along the upper part of the stems in July through October. Like most members of the mint family, hyssop contains a highly aromatic volatile oil in its leaves, stems and flowers. It does have a very interesting history, and I think by now I have it straight enough in my mind that I won't lead you astray.
Hyssop is a word that can be traced back almost unchanged through Greek and Hebrew. The Old Testament book of Exodus tells us that the blood of the sacrifices was applied to doorposts on a branch of hyssop. In the New Testament, it is mentioned in some translations as being the branch holding wine or vinegar that was lifted for Jesus to drink. In some accounts of the crucifixion it is said to be the plant used to make a crown for His head. In the Old Testament book of Leviticus hyssop is mentioned as a treatment for leprosy, and it is said that Moses used hyssop as a secret weapon to free and protect his people from all harm. The Greeks used it for purifying temples, and also for cleansing lepers. In the first century, the Benedictine monks used it to flavor their liquors, as well as for flavoring their soups and sauces.
In teaching me about hyssop, Aunt Bett gave me the Biblical information first, probably because she thought it was most important. But the next step was to teach me about the use of the plant according to her standards. This is where things became a little muddled in my mind. Medicinally hyssop has been used mainly as a remedy for respiratory ailments. The ancient Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen recommended it for bronchitis and other inflammations of the chest and throat. Herbalists in the seventeenth century prescribed a hyssop preparation as a remedy for bad coughs. Romans liked its taste and made an herbal wine from it. Modern herbalists use the plant in these ways as well, in addition to treating hoarseness and sore throat. At one time or another, hyssop found other uses too, hot vapors of a decoction were used for earaches, crushed leaves were used by the Cherokee for cuts and bruises, and infusions of the leaves were applied externally to treat rheumatism.
In order to put all this into perspective, just remember that for a little girl who had been raised to believe in the Bible, and to also respect her elders, that much information can get all tangled up. Aunt Bett had told me about Biblical plants, and she seemed to treat them more carefully than others, so hyssop fit into that category. If it was Biblical, then it was worthy to be taken with me to church. I don't remember my reason for taking it with me, I only remember that it was pressed into the pages of a book that I carried in my little fake leather square red shoulder bag one summer Sunday morning. It made my bag smell so good.
I sat near one of the long tall open windows inside the red brick church building, the only church in many miles that had a steeple. The church sat with its back up against the mountain, parking spaces on both sides, and across the road that ran in front of it was the north fork of the Kentucky River, rolling along to places unknown. It was a hot day, and there was only the breeze as it blew through the windows to cool sweaty brows of little girls. The preacher was a bit long-winded and I opened my purse to see if I could find something to do so that I wouldn't fall over in a dead sleep, or swoon dead away in a sweaty faint. It was that kind of day. I pulled out the little book I had in my purse, the one that held pressed inside the sprig of hyssop. I knew the strong scent would keep me awake, just as it did the little old ladies who used it for that purpose so long ago. There were paper fans advertising the local funeral home laying on the church pew, and I picked one up so that I could hide the hyssop behind it. I fanned my sweaty face with the fan and the strong smelling hyssop.
Very soon, there were some honey bees coming in through the window, and buzzing around my head. I took the fan and shooed them away, but they did not go very far. I fanned faster. Bees began to fill that side of the church, and I could hear murmurs and the rustle of clothes moving in the pews around me. It was not very long before there seemed to be more bees than there were people, when suddenly from behind, an arm reached around and grabbed that fan and the hyssop out of my hand and tossed them out the open window. Most of the bees followed, and those that were left behind did not linger long.
No one ever bothered to explain to me the phenomenon that occurred in church that day, and I was probably too embarrassed to ask. I thought it was a Biblical plant, because Aunt Bett said so. She did not tell me it would bring the bees to church. I have since learned that the strong fragrance does attract bees, and they make a sweet smelling honey from the nectar. I also know an extract of hyssop lends its aroma to a good number of colognes and liquors. I guess those bees must have smelled me for miles around.
I don't remember taking anymore plants to church with me. It is my understanding that hyssop is also enjoyed by butterflies and birds. It would have been a much better memory if it had been the butterflies who came to church with me that day, but it could have been a worse disaster if the birds had decided to come in. Some of the ladies wore huge hats with flowers and twigs on them. In the time it took that preacher to finish his sermon, there could have been many little birds happily nesting in those hats.
Magic and Medicine of Plants, the Reader's Digest, Inc. 1986, page 222
All Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: Gabrielle, Terry, and Philomel.
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.