Hyssop: Later Uses

Late 19th and early 20th century authors are still following Dioscorides, Robinson (1868) almost exactly (via Parkinson). Hool in the 20th century records a breadth of properties: aromatic, diaphoretic, anthelmintic, aperient, febrifuge, expectorant, diuretic. He says it is a herb highly esteemed in infancy. For bronchitis, hoarseness and cough he gives a recipe: hyssop ½ oz, symphytum y, oz, pour on 2½ pints of water, boil gently for 10 minutes, strain, sweeten with sugar or molasses, take a wineglassful every 2-3 hours or oftener.

Mrs Grieve attributes the virtues to the volatile oil which, she says, is stimulating, carminative and sudorific; particularly promoting expectoration, and the diaphoretic and stimulant properties too being useful in chronic catarrh. She says it is frequently mixed with horehound Marrubium vulgare. Although in her day it was ‘seldom employed (as it once was)’ as a carminative and for hysterical complaints, she attests to the use of the fresh green tops as tea as an old-fashioned country remedy for rheumatism ‘that is still employed’. Is this perhaps an echo of Dioscorides’ use for inflammation?

The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia records the presence of volatile oil and flavonoid glycosides, including diosmin. Its action is expectorant, diaphoretic, sedative and carminative, with indications for bronchitis and chronic nasal catarrh. It has been used in hysteria, anxiety states and petit mal. Dose 2-4 g; liquid extract 1:1 2-4 mL; tincture 1:5 2-4 mL.

So its old reputation gets fixed in a more modern context and we find reference to epilepsy reappearing with use for petit mal and a recommendation for hysteria and anxiety despite the ‘seldom used’ of Mrs Grieve. Is this, then, a reflection of its use by herbalists in the 1950s and later?

Among modern authors hyssop’s effect is attributed mainly to its volatile oils. It is valued mainly for its upper and lower respiratory applications ridding thick phlegm, with an aromatic tonic, calming and carminative undertow, valuable particularly in children’s remedies. Barker (2001), Hoffman, Chevallier and Wood carry this sort of emphasis, although Weiss, a little earlier and over in Germany, suggests it is more carminative than expectorant. Barker and Wood both refer to its capacity to stop sweating, although in some herbals, including the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia, it is classed as diaphoretic. Menzies Trull covers a much wider range of therapeutic activities, very inclusive of applications through the tradition, and adds to the above actions; antiviral, antibacterial, anthelmintic, antirheumatic, emmenagogue, dermatological agent, vulnerary and external antiseptic; it is, he says, aromatic and stimulating to mucous membranes from the bitter in the volatile oil; it sustains the capillary circulation and peripheral nerves by diffusive activity; an absorbent remedy which relieves the lungs of excess mucus; he thus recommends it for a wide range of conditions from chronic catarrh and bronchitis, to genital herpes, petit mal, tinnitus (steam treatment), bruises, wounds and body lice. With these recommendations and Hoffman’s citing of King’s Dispensatory on hyssop as ‘used in quinsy and sore throats…in infusion sweetened with honey….leaves applied to bruises… disperse every spot or mark from affected parts…’ it is interesting to note we are still working with Dioscorides.

The epilepsy tradition still persists. Menzies Trull lists it above; Hoffman has a confident ‘it may be taken for anxiety states and petit mal seizures’ and Barker (2001) has a more reserved ‘the herb has been used in petit mal’. In modern literature, however, research has indicated the oil of hyssop may provoke epileptic seizures. Chevallier warns of this. Is this a case of Paracelsus’ ‘dosis facit venenum’, the idea that nothing is without poison and only the dose makes a thing not a poison – a dose-response relationship, and that there is some sort of link here? Nevertheless the use of the herb seems quite safe. Hoffman reports no side-effect or drug interaction reported, and Barker (2001) reassures about the use of the whole plant ‘Cadeac and Meunier report that the use of the essential oil itself is capable of giving rise to epileptic crises. This should come as no surprise for those who work with essential oils; the toxic dose is very close to the therapeutic dose and does not mirror the therapeutic application of the whole plant extract.’

In Pelikan hyssop is covered within the labiate family, which has, of course, its own defining characteristics. Pelikan entitles the labiates ‘plants of warmth’, through which they have a special relationship with human beings, all 3000 species in the family having some medicinal properties. The activity of the warmth expresses itself particularly in the production of volatile oils. Pelikan has a vivid description of these ‘fiery aromatic compounds’, ‘In them, warmth has transformed matter to the point where it comes as close as possible to warmth nature’. The warmth nature can be gathered from a variety of indications that Pelikan rehearses. One example is seen in the needle shaped leaf found in many plants of this family. In a good number of plants from various families a change in shape of the leaves can be determined (see Goethe and introduction) from the base upwards as the plant grows, beginning with a longer stemmed more amorphous shape, then spreading outward, gradually indenting further up the stem while pulling closer to it, until the leaf immediately before the flower has only a simple pointed shape. If an elemental sequence is applied to this metamorphosis, the first lowest leaf as earth, the spreading as water, the indenting as air, the pointing as fire, and Hoffmann (2007) for elaboration of these ideas) the leaves of many labiates, rosemary, lavender, thyme, hyssop, savoury and oregano speak clearly of a ‘fire’ plant. Pelikan here simply refers to the typical labiate as moving thus rapidly to the flowering process and even anticipating it, ‘the leaves, even the stems are fragrant, anticipating the flowering aspect; they are filled with warmth and show the inflammatory tendencies of the flower’. To the stimulating and warming actions anticipated through a flowering process that reaches into the leaf region is added, Pelikan says, an influence through the I organization that is associated with warmth. Pelikan hence refers to firing of the metabolism ‘anywhere in the metabolic and rhythmic systems’; with ‘I activities involved in metabolism, blood production and respiration’ influenced by medicinal plants in this family. Since astral activities are not abnormally strong and any ‘wayward’ astral activity is nevertheless under the control of I warmth, there are no poisonous or narcotic plants in this family. Pelikan summarizes, ‘Depending on the particular form of a species the action will be addressed to the blood, gastric region, heart, lungs or uterus’. Hyssop Pelikan describes as camphor-like in the scent of its leaves, which is warming and a bit animal-like, as a badger (Wood, from the other side of the Atlantic, likens the smell to skunk ‘which tips us off that it will be deeply penetrating, opening pores and passageways deep inside the body, as well as in the skin…’). The leaf region is abundant, he says. The plant is warming, relaxing and antispasmodic with a medicinal action mainly in the rhythmic system, of use for chronic bronchial catarrh, asthma and regulation of perspiration. The oil, he says, will relieve severe pain.