Anise Hyssop: The Herb, The Medicine, The Recipe
by Victoria Challancin
by Victoria Challancin
So many choices. What shall it be? The lavender? The rosemary hedge? The anise hyssop? The lemon verbena? As a last sensual salute to my garden on my way out the gate, I look for one of my plants whose green leaves just beg to be stroked in a final farewell. Just to run you hand through any one of these plants, crush a leaf, or pluck a sprig is enough to transmit the luscious volatile oils to your hands to carry with you, your very own garden gift.
I try not to take them for granted. I use them in the kitchen in lavender sugar, rosemary simple syrup, anise hyssop pound cake, and lemon verbena ricotta pancakes. But secretly, I know I am happiest when I brew infusions with them and mull over the myriad conditions I am improving as I sip. I could be happy with my very own Medieval-style apothecary, my own space to work with my herbs and prepare my simples, but for now I’ll happily settle for my garden. And I’ll try never to take it for granted.
In my cooking classes for Mexican maids and cooks, I teach them international recipes, I educate their palates, I expose them to new tastes and ingredients. But from them I also learn, possibly more than they learn from me. Knowing my interest in the healing power of plants, they offer me their grandmothers’ homemade recipes for life’s simple ailments. I dutifully write them down as I silently pray for just a touch of indigestion, a twinge of headache, a hint of a cough just so I can test their efficacy, knowing they help. Knowing I believe in them.
Today I land on my anise hyssop, which is coming back to life after winter. As a member of the Lamiaceae, or Mint family, hyssopus is native to the Mediterranean regionand parts of east to central Asia. The genus boasts about a dozen different species of which hyssopus officinalis is the most common. My favorite of the two hyssops growing in my garden is the anise hyssop (Agastache mexicana or anethiodorum in Latin and toronjil morado in Spanish), a native of North America, whose licorice overtones provide a pleasant lift to its already lemony scent.
HistoryHyssop has a long history. The name hyssopus comes directly from the Greek, where Dioscorides in his five volume book De Materia Medica, written in the first century, called it a holy herb due to its use in cleaning sacred places. Hippocrates, five hundred years earlier, had already recommended its use in the treatment of bronchitis. The Bible mentions it many times as well. It was used as a sort of brush to paint the sacrificial blood of a lamb on the lintels and doors of the houses of the Jews to protect them from the Angel of Death during Passover or the tenth plague. And it was on a hyssop branch that the vinegar-soaked sponge was placed and then offered to Christ as comfort during his crucifixion. Psalms 51:7 says “Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” And perhaps that is what I specifically sense as I run my hands through my plant: a cleansing, purifying rush of glorious scents.
Hyssop also figures into traditional Chinese medicine where it is prescribed for heatstroke, headache, fever, and angina. The Chinese use it as well in a poultice for sores.
Because it, like other herbs, releases its essential oil when crushed unterfoot, hyssop was popular as a strewing herb for the floors of Medieval Europe. One old English remedy claims its usefulness in healing cuts and wounds and preventing tetanus infection when applied as a poultice with sugar. A strong infusion made from the leaves and flowering tops of the plant is used for catarrhal complaints of the lung, nose and throat. And the same infusion can be applied externally to bruises to reduce the swelling and discoloration. Modern uses for its essential oil also include it in blends to increase alertness and in a tonic suitable for treating nervous exhaustion, stress, anxiety, and depression. In America, the same infusion is used topically for the relief of muscular rheumatism. However, some herbals do warn that the oil contains the ketone pino-camphone which in high doses can cause convulsions.
The anise variety, native to North America, was used by Native Americans in various ways: as a tea, as a seasoning, and as medicine. The Chippewa used the root in lung formulas. The Cree also used it as a part of medicinal bundles. And many tribes used it as a breath-freshener and sweetener. The slightly licorice-scented honey made from its nectar was also popular.
Constituents, Actions, and IndicationsThe phytochemicals of hyssop include such terpenoids as marrubiin, which facilitates the expectoration of mucus. Hyssop also contains many volatile oils such as camphor, thujone, and linalool among others, many of which have anti-spasmodic action, which make it useful in the treatment of both coughs and menstrual cramps. It also contains flavonoids, the glucoside hyssopin, tannins, and resin.
My various herbals list its actions as: Anti-spasmodic, expectorant, diaphoretic, nervine, anti-inflammatory, carminative, hepatic, and emmenagogue, all of which suggest an interesting and wide range of uses.
Today, hyssop is used for the treatment nasal congestion, asthma, cough, and mild irritations of the respiratory tract. The hyssop essential oil has stimulant, carminative, sudorific, and antiseptic affects. The essential oil contains pinocamphone and isopinocamphone which have neurotoxic effects and should therefore only be taken with care and in a much diluted form.
Perhaps understanding the plant's usefulness as an antisposmodic at some centuries-old, visceral level that eludes me, most of my Mexican students say they use it regularly as a tea to relieve menstrual discomfort or for coughs. In the Mexican states of Hidalgo, Michoacan, Morelia, Puebla, and Mexico, it is commonly used as a digestive. Other common uses include it as a diuretic tea useful for weight control and for nervous system disorders. Perhaps the most interesting use that I have found only in Mexico, is one that capitalizes on its hypoglycaemic effect, which makes it useful in the treatment of diabetes, which is wide-spread in Mexico. In Mexico, diabetes is commonly treated with herbal extracts, which can be beneficial, particularly in the early stages of diabetes. Studies have shown a total of 306 species of plants used in diabetes treatment here in Mexico, with Agastache mexicana (anise hyssop in English; toronjil morado in Spanish) being one of them.
Culinary and Other UsesIn addition to its medicinal uses, hyssop is found as an ingredient in various perfumes and in the popular liqueur Chartreuse and even in absinthe. Gardeners love it because it has a long flowering season and attracts hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. For me, though I trust its usefulness in treating respiratory problems, menstrual cramps, bruises, and more, I love it simply for its aromatics. It is an almost joyous flavor treat for me. The slightly bitter, minty-licorice flavor of hyssop is a welcome and unusual addition in small amounts to salads and to desserts either in leaf or flower form, fresh or dried. I have made infusions, added it fresh or dried to shortbread cookies, pound cake, and chocolate cookies. My husband’s friend John Peterson, whose story was featured in the award-winning documentary The Real Dirt on Farmer John by another friend, filmmaker Taggart Seigel, says in his wonderful cookbook Farmer John’s Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables that anise hyssop is a perfect partner for carrots, melons, and parsnips. He gives specific recipes for Anise Hyssop Tabbouleh, Anise Hyssop Tea Bread with Lemon and Walnuts, and best of all for Chocolate and Anise Hyssop Butter Cookies, where he says the herb shines as “a brilliant addition to chocolate.” I couldn't agree more. Here is what I came up with in my own kitchen based on a recipe from my mother’s recipe file (source unknown, of course). I simply added a handful of chopped fresh leaves and flower tops to her basic chocolate sour cream pound cake batter and a bit to the glaze.
Chocolate Sour Cream Pound Cake with Anise Hyssop and Anise Hyssop Glaze
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)
1 cup butter, at room temperature
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup hyssop leaves and/or flowers, ground in
a food processor
1/2 cup cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon almond extract
For the glaze:
1/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon dried or fresh hyssop flowers
1 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
Preheat the oven to 325F. Grease a Bundt pan and set aside.
In a large bowl beat the butter until creamy. Add the sugar, one cup at a time, and beat until incorporated. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for at least one minute after each addition. Add the extracts and beat until incorporated. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, ground hyssop, cocoa, baking soda, and salt. Alternately add the dry mixture and the sour cream, mixing well. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for one hour and 15 minutes, or until cake tests clean with a toothpick. Turn off oven and lave cake in oven for 5 minutes before removing. Cook on a wire rack for about 10 minutes before removing from pan.
To prepare the glaze: Place the milk and hyssop flowers in a blender. Purée and place in a small pot over low heat. Heat until the milk begins to simmer. Remove from heat, allow to steep for 10 minutes, and strain into a small bowl. Add the confectioner’s sugar and mix with a whisk until smooth, adding more sugar or a couple drops of milk as needed to reach the right consistency. Drizzle over cake while still slightly warm.