Hyssop: Limitation

By the 18th century the variety of preparations appears to have been reduced. According to Miller the only official preparation was the simple water. The use to which hyssop was put appears a little slimmed down but enthusiasm for its virtues continued. Miller has it as ‘healing, opening and attenuating, good to cleanse the lungs of tartarous humours and helpful against coughs, asthmas, difficulty of breathing and cold distempers of the lungs; likewise reckoned a cephalic and good for diseases of the head and nerves. The bruised herb applied outwardly is famous for taking away black and blue marks out of the skin’. An amount of Dioscorides’ applications have gone; the respiratory uses remain, plus a reputation as a general cephalic and good for the nerves, presumably from Pliny.

Quincy praises the use of hyssop but the indications are further shrunken to just the chest ‘it is good in many kinds of coughs and disorders of the lungs and breasts which arise from phlegm and viscid humours. It is good in asthmas, promotes expectoration and gives relief in difficulty of breathing. It is almost a constant ingredient in pectoral apozems’. Quincy rates the distilled water of the shops highly: ‘This is one of those few simples of which there is a distilled water in the shops that is good for anything. For there comes over with it so much of a warm essential oil, as not only preserves it from Mother and stinking (which most simple waters are subject to) but also makes it a good pectoral and efficacious to all those purposes which this herb is given for in any other forms’. For Quincy the herb is warm and detergent and thus belongs to Class 4 of the balsamics, the detergents. The balsamics generally comprise remedies that are ‘softening, restoring, healing and cleansing’, while the detergents are of even more subtle parts and ‘therefore fitter to mix with, attenuate and wear away the contents of abscesses and ulcerations, and those mucous and viscid collections of humours which are apt to adhere to and obstruct the vessels.’

Cullen, in the 18th century, was far more dismissive of the herb, suggesting it is ‘properly now neglected in favour of Pulegium’. Moreover, in his experience, the claim to rid bruises from the skin was quite unfounded: ‘In ecchymoses, Riolan goes so far as to say, it sucks the blood out of the part, which was seen on the cloth. You see how difficult it is to trust materia medica writers. I have tried Hyssop in such cases and found no other effect than from the application of any other aromatic’.

The herb was used in America. Cook refers to it as a diffusive aromatic, stimulant and relaxing and a mild tonic; for sustaining capillary circulation gently and the nervous periphery; as an expectorant it relieves coughs, for cold with soreness of the chest and as a gargle for quinsy. Again it is apparently valued for its warming and thinning qualities, as a stimulant of sorts, although the capillary circulation is a rare mention, presumably a physiomedical appellation. Its tradition of nervous support continues and Dioscorides comes through again. The herb does not appear in Ellingwood.

Back in England, Fox tells us it is a favourite herb with the working classes and one much grown: ‘there is scarcely a garden without this plant’. He adds to the usual asthmas, coughs and colds its use as a drink is slow typhus fevers.