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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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(Hyssopus officinalis), a garden herb belonging to the natural order Labiatae, formerly cultivated for use in domestic medicine. It is a small perennial plant about 2 ft. high, with slender, quadrangular, woody stems; narrowly elliptical, pointed, entire, dotted leaves, about 1 in. long and 3 in. wide, growing in pairs on the stem; and long terminal, erect, halfwhorled, leafy spikes of small violet-blue flowers, which are in blossom from June to September. Varieties of the plant occur in gardens with red and white flowers, also one having variegated leaves. The leaves have a warm, aromatic, bitter taste, and are believed to owe their properties to a volatile oil which is present in the proportion of 4 to a %. Hyssop is a native of the south of Europe, its range extending eastward to central Asia. A strong tea made of the leaves, and sweetened with honey, was formerly used in pulmonary and catarrhal affections, and externally as an application to bruises and indolent swellings.

The hedge hyssop (Gratiola officinalis) belongs to the natural order Scrophulariaceae, and is a native of marshy lands in the south of Europe, whence it was introduced into Britain more than 300 years ago. Like Hyssopus officinalis, it has smooth opposite entire leaves, but the stems are cylindrical, the leaves twice the size, and the flowers solitary in the axils of the leaves and having a yellowish-red veined tube and bluish-white limb, while the capsules are oval and many-seeded. The herb has a bitter, nauseous taste, but is almost odourless. In small quantities it acts as a purgative, diuretic and emetic when taken internally. It was formerly official in the Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia, being esteemed as a remedy for dropsy. It is said to have formed the basis of a celebrated nostrum for gout, called Eau medicina;e, and in former times was called Gratia Dei. When growing in abundance, as it does in some damp pastures in Switzerland, it becomes dangerous to cattle. G. peruviana is known to possess similar properties.

The hyssop ('ezob) of Scripture (Ex. xii. 22; Lev. xiv. 4, 6; Numb. xix. 6, 18; I Kings v. 13 (iv. 33); Ps. li. 9 (7); John xix. 29), a wall-growing plant adapted for sprinkling purposes, has long been the subject of learned disputation, the only point on which all have agreed being that it is not to be identified with the Hyssopus officinalis, which is not a native of Palestine. No fewer than eighteen plants have been supposed by various authors to answer the conditions, and Celsius has devoted more than forty pages to the discussion of their several claims. By Tristram (Oxford Bible for Teachers, 1880) and others the caper plant (Capparis spinosa) is supposed to be meant; but, apart from other difficulties, this identification is open to the objection that the caper seems to be, at least in one passage (Eccl. xii. 5), otherwise designated (abiyyonah). Thenius (on 1 Kings v. 13) suggests Orthotrichum saxatile. The most probable opinion would seem to be that found in Maimonides and many later writers, according to which the Hebrew ezob is to be identified with the Arabic sa'atar, now understood to be Satureja Thymus, a plant of very frequent occurrence in Syria and Palestine, with which Thymus Serpyllum, or wild thyme, and Satureja Thymbra are closely allied. Its smell, taste and medicinal properties are similar to those of H. officinalis. In Morocco the sa`atar of the Arabs is Origanum compactum; and it appears probable that several plants of the genera Thymus, Origanum and others nearly allied in form and habit, and found in similar localities, were used under the name of hyssop.

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Hyssop'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica.​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​h/hyssop.html. 1910.