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Gardening column: Holy hyssop

29 March 2018


“CLEANSE me with hyssop, and I will be clean” (Psalm 51). On hearing those words in church, someone involved in maintaining green spaces around churches might consider tracking down a hyssop plant, or at least some seed. That is not as simple as it sounds.

The herb we refer to as hyssop today, Hyssopus officinalis, is Southern European, but its natural range does not extend as far as the Holy Land. As the species name suggests, it has long been used in medicine. It was once so commonplace that the Elizabethan physician John Gerard mentions that his Greek pre­decessor, Dioscorides, had left it “altogether without description, as being a plant so well knowne that it needed none”.

Gerard followed suit in his herbal to “avoid tediousnesse to the Reader”. It forms a neat hummock of scented foliage, and displays, in July and August, spikes of two-lipped flowers, in pink, purple, or white. If the sort of sunny well-drained spot favoured by its cousin, lavender, can be found, it could be included in a church community’s garden to show what the biblical hyssop is almost certainly not.

A further complication is that the various references to hyssop in the New and Old Testaments probably refer to more than one species. The sponge soaked with vinegar offered to the dying Christ was held on a hyssop branch. Here, I would accept the 19th-century scholar J. F. Royle’s conclusion that the plant in question was a caper, Capparis spinosa, a spiny shrub common in the Holy Land. This has branches stout and long enough to reach Jesus’s mouth.

A caper plant is easily grown from seed, but needs hot, dry conditions, and, in this country, will flourish only in a greenhouse, where it will provide a harvest of the flower buds that can be pickled.

Botanists tend to agree that the esov of scripture is Syrian oregano, Origanum syriacum syn. O. maru. In spring, this “hyssop” bears clusters of tiny white flowers at the stem tips. With its fuzzy leaves and hairy stems, a bunch makes a fine aspergillum. It would have served well as a paintbrush for daubing blood on doorposts and lintels at the time of Passover. It is still used today by Samaritans in their Passover ritual.

Palestinians refer to the herb as “za’atar”. Confusingly, za’atar also refers to the spice mix that contains sesame seeds, sumac, and salt, as well as the Syrian oregano.

Jekka’s Herb Farm sells a range of unusual herbs, including Syrian oregano. Plants are available from the farm on open days, or by email and collection. As a Middle Eastern native, za’atar plants need some protection over winter, from the wet and the cold. It makes an attractive border plant, and reaches a height of about 60cm in this country.

The leaves, with their unique savoury/thyme/oregano essence, would certainly be a talking-point as a key ingredient in a parish meal.


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