Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
I learn a lot while writing these columns each week. Probably the number one lesson I wish everyone could learn is be cautious when identifying plants with common names. Very often, more than one plant may be referred to by the same common name in different parts of the world. Throw in translating names from other languages, and identifying a particular plant can become very complex.
A Master Gardener suggested that in light of Passover and Easter approaching, I write an article on hyssop, one of the "bitter herbs" mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. It sounded great to me, but was somewhat surprised to find that there are several plants commonly referred to as "hyssop", complicating identifying the true identity of this biblical herb.
Hyssop is mentioned in several instances in the Bible as an herb used in cleansing rituals. It was also the plant that Moses told the Israelites to use to smear the blood of the paschal lamb around their doors for the Passover. The Apostle John's account of Christ's passion recounts the use of a branch of hyssop to carry a sponge full of vinegar to Christ to drink on the cross.
Though biblical accounts clearly use the term hyssop, many biblical and botanical experts argue that this is not the plant Hyssopus officinalis, which most modern people identify as hyssop. They argue this plant was not found growing in ancient Egypt and Palestine. Instead, they hypothesize the hyssop used in the bible is probably Origanum maru, a relative of marjoram that is in the same family as Hyssopus officinalis and is found growing nearly everywhere in the Holy Land, even in the desert, as described in the Bible.
Complicating matters further is that sometimes Origanum maru has been referred to as Bible Hyssop, Syrian Hyssop, or Syrian Oregano. A few Bible scholars have argued that hyssop is in fact the caper plant, since one biblical passage describes hyssop as growing out of a wall, which is common for caper plants, but unheard of for Origanum maru. The problem may arise from the translation of the word wall–which may not mean a man-made wall, but a natural ledge on a mountainside. In this case, the mysterious hyssop very well could be Origanum maru.
The confusion is not limited to the Bible. I recently purchased a plant labeled Anise Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum. A little research revealed that this plant is neither an anise nor a hyssop. In fact, it's related to mint, and sometimes is called by the common name Licorice Mint.
All the "hyssops" mentioned above will grow well in a well-drained sunny location, much like many other herbs. Origanum maru and Agastache foeniculum have culinary uses. Hyssopus officinalis has limited culinary uses, but many appreciate its gorgeious bluish purple flowers and how it attracts butterflies and bees. Agastache foeniculum is also a favorite of butterflies and bees. Whatever you grow, any of the "hyssops" mentioned above are interesting additions to your garden, even though their common names confuse their true identities.