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Shakespeare’s Garden: Hyssop

hyssopus officianalis 2Hyssop belongs to the genus Hyssopus in the mint family, : Lamiaceae. Shakespeare’s hyssop has been identified as Hyssopus officinalis, a compact native Asia and of southern and eastern Europe. The plant grows about two to three feet tall and has many, upright, many-branched stems. The linear, hairless leaves are 1-1 ½ inches long and have a mint-like aroma when crushed. The flowers are carried in whorls of dense spikes at the top of the main stems in summer Each flower is two lipped , up to ½ inch long, and blue or violet. Plants are hardy in USDA ones 4 to 9 and thrive in full sun to part shade, and average, dry to medium, well-drained soil.

In Othello (act i, sc 3, 322), Iago, the ensign of Othello and the villain of the whole play, gives advice to love-sick Roderigo who is pining for Desdemona;

‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus.
Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are
gardeners. So that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce,
set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one
gender of herbs or distract it with many—either to have it
sterile with idleness, or manured with industry—why, the
power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.

The Bible mentions hyssop but there is some disagreement as to what plant is actually meant. The plant was known in ancient types and the name hyssop comes from the Greek name for the plant, hyssopos. The sixteenth century English herbalist, Gerard, grew several kinds.