A Warming Respiratory Herb And Further Applications

From Dioscorides and Galen we have a picture of a warming herb, dispelling cold by heating and thinning. Hyssop’s prime reputation lies in its use for the respiratory system: it clears the build up of cold mucus and eases its effects, extending even to the ears. All authors to the present day refer in some way to this virtue. Dodoens specifically recommends the preparation of a lohoch or loch – a ‘licking medicine’, of middle consistency, between a soft electuary and a syrup – for relief of obstruction, shortness of breath and an old, hard cough. Parkinson offers a recipe for old coughs and voiding tough phlegm; a handful of hyssop, 2 oz figs, 1 oz sugar candy; boil in a quart of Muscadine until half a pint be consumed; strain and take morning and evening. In the more local tradition too this application appears in the Myddfai texts, with hyssop and centaury Centaurium erythraea pounded and strained and mixed with white of egg and drunk for 3 days for tightness of the chest; and red fennel and the tops of hyssop, bruised with mallows and boiled to strengthen the lungs, throat and chest.

Its warming influence reaches the bowels too, moving cold, heavy deposits there. The warmth generated inside is presumably responsible for the good colour claimed by Dioscorides and many of those repeating his recommendations. Applied externally it counters inflammation and dissolves bruises. This latter action is perhaps a little more obscure today but can be accounted for in Galenic medicine through the dispersing properties of the herb. As a herb hot and dry in the third degree, additional applications might be expected, such as a general heating in chills, a diuretic and emmenagogic action. For example, Serapio mentions that it softens hardening of the body and is strong against hardness and cold in the womb, kidneys and bladder, ‘it helps void crude humours’, he says. The Salernitan herbal says it disperses and dissipates humours and is diuretic by its powers to free the urinary ducts. It purges phlegm of the stomach and nutritive organs (little here of Pliny’s ‘not friendly to the stomach’) and is good for diseases of the lungs with heavy phlegm.

Parkinson refers to causing women’s courses. The Trotula of the late 12th century refers to its use as an emmenagogue in ‘deficient menses’ if the womb is ‘so indurated that the menses are not able to be drawn out’, in which case carded wool should be dipped in the gall of a bull or another gall, or powder of natron, mixed with the juice of wild celery Apium graveolens or hyssop, the wool to be pressed to make it hard and rigid and then to be inserted into the vagina. As we have come across before, a paradoxical use for fertility is also cited for the same herb; thus later in The Trotula text hyssop’s heating nature is deployed with other herbs to aid conception. Some women are too fat, others to thin to conceive, the author claims. If a woman is phlegmatic and fat, she should ‘sit in a bath of sea water with rainwater and add juniper, catmint, pennyroyal, spurge, laurel, wormwood, mugwort, hyssop and hot herbs of this kind’ – a potent mix indeed!

Hildegard in the 12th century speaks of hyssop’s hot, dry and powerful nature; ‘it is of such strength that even a stone is not able to withstand it, and it grows wherever it is sown’. Her applications extend only to lungs and liver ‘when it is eaten the liver becomes lively and it cleanses the lungs somewhat. He who coughs and has a pain in the liver, or who suffers from congestion in the lungs, or who suffers both conditions should eat hyssop with meats or with lard and he will be better’. She recommends taking it with liquorice, cinnamon and fennel, fennel in the greater proportion, then decreasing portions of hyssop, cinnamon and liquorice. If the liver is sick ‘because of a person’s sadness,’ she adds, ‘he should cook and eat young chicks with hyssop’ and drink wine with hyssop soaked in it.

Among the Renaissance writers Culpeper attributes to hyssop the rulership of lupiter and Cancer, hence useful for liver, stomach and lungs. He gives a succinct yet comprehensive (and by now very familiar from Dioscorides and Pliny) summary of recommendations so far, with rue and honey for coughs, shortness of breath etc.; as oxymel to expel gross humours by stool; with honey to kill worms; with figs for looseness of belly especially with fleur de luce and cresses (these two are contended ground of course); for colour of the body spoiled by jaundice; with nitre for dropsy and spleen; with wine for bruises; with figs for quinsy as a gargle; with vinegar for toothache; its vapours for the ears; with salt, honey and cumin for serpent stings; the oil kills lice and soothes itching of the head; for the falling sickness, tough phlegm all cold griefs of the chest, as a syrup or licking medicine; the ground herb for green wounds with sugar. This latter use, while not in the ancient texts we consulted, appears in a number of the Renaissance and later authors, for example, Parkinson and Robinson (1868).

Hyssop appears to have been used widely in Bauhin’s day in a variety of forms: juice, distilled water, syrup, conserve, wine and oil. He quotes Brunfels recommending its use in fomentations, epithemes and baths, in clysters for colic pains and decoction for ‘all psoras and skin lesions’.