How Hyssop Healed My Hand


There I was last week, grizzling on about the drought; and then, look at the rain! “Talking about it brings it on”, as Alan Bennett used to say. When I was eleven or twelve years old, a boy at school taught me a supposed Native American rain dance. As I loathed sport – laid on for us daily – I did a lot of dancing in the hope of water-logged pitches. The creepy thing was, the ritual usually worked.

I soon took fright and abandoned it.

The torrential May rains have released the most sumptuous scents, especially on muggier days. The combined odours of may blossom, lilac and lacy cow parsley outdo for loveliness anything you’ll smell on the place Vendome or the rue de la Paix. Heady, heavy, floral-animalic, damply powdery, sweet with honey and musk. Imagine a Caron boutique of a century ago, relocated in a country lane or a roundabout on the ring road.

Charged up with a false and flower-intoxicated energy, I overdid it sadly in the back yard. Fellow gardeners will know what I mean. You don’t notice at the time, but you tug at a stubborn root too vigorously; or pull a weed from the wrong angle. Twenty four hours later you’re in agony. This time it was the second finger of my left hand. Blew up like a pound of sausages. Couldn’t move it. Throbbing in the night. Every colour of the rainbow. Because I was traumatised decades ago by Daniel Day Lewis dying abruptly of tetanus in ‘My Brother Jonathan’ on the TV, I always jump to the worst conclusions. Once I’d calmed down I had a rummage in the bathroom cupboard. With my right hand.

I found the oil of hyssop: the magic purgative plant; the holy healing herb of the ancients. The late great Angela Flanders used to keep my mother supplied with it, for her arthritis. Of course, I should have greatly diluted the hyssop: Angela’s strict instructions are still written on the bottle. However I was reckless with pain, so I rubbed the oil in neat for three days. It made my skin peel like a sloughing python, but – combined with ice baths – it brought out the bruising, reduced the swelling in short order, and worked a miracle within 72 hours.

Hyssop is much mentioned in the Old Testament – “purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be white as snow” ¤. On account of the endless translations and re-translations of the ancient texts we do not know whether the plant named as hyssop in the Bible is the same mauve or electric blue flowered herb that we recognise today. Scientific botanical classification is less than 300 years old¤¤. Distilled hyssop smells exceedingly lemon-like; green, dark and medicinal. The fragrance is pure, still and calming. Hyssop is integral to the brewing of Chartreuse; and is associated with the bitter herbs of the first Passover. The Pentateuch mentions it in connection with its use as a sprinkler of blood or water or perfume. Long before we sprayed, we sprinkled.

So, always anxious to investigate on your behalf, I went down to consult with my local herb man. Regular readers will remember that this was the fascinating fellow who last year told me all about feverfew, to which he is violently allergic.

I rang the bell.

He said he’d not seen hyssop for years. As I had thought, it seems to be out of style. But he gave me a pot of flagrantly strong, smoky – even slightly minty –  hot Greek oregano. Which was very apt because many modern horticulturalists think it probable that the old Biblical hyssop was the herb we now know as Syrian oregano. I could see at once that a bunch of densely leaved, slightly furry oregano would make an ideal natural aspergillum. If only to bless a tomato salad with the good olive oil.

Which I duly did. And two hours later the wonderful aroma of the oregano still hung in the afternoon kitchen air.


¤ Psalm 5, verse 7

¤¤ spikenard is another example of these ancient & modern botantical confusions. And look at the harebell – “the bluebell of Scotland”. Not to mention geraniums and pelargoniums.

The Gathering Storm

Zeus, God of Thunder

Dedicated, with permission, to L.O. – a keener, fairer nose than mine.

Hundreds of years ago when I was young, I lived in dread of thunderstorms, a fear that was exacerbated by the horror stories then routinely fed to infants. The thunder was the Wrath of God seeking me out for telling fibs; mirrors and cutlery must be shrouded in cloths lest lightning strike and consume us all in the concomitant flames; the only way to be completely safe was to sit in the bath wearing gumboots; “your uncle Arthur was struck down mowing the lawn in a storm”. The litany was endless: I used to go to earth in the cupboard under the stairs;or seek refuge in my father’s surgery where the recklessly bright lights, reek of ether and the sense of urgent concentration as a dog was stitched up seemed to defy the elements.

Primeval fears! Remember the maiden Semele who asked her lover Zeus to appear before her in his full glory with lightning playing around his head and armed with thunderbolts? He warned her; she insisted. And was reduced to ashes on the spot. It was said at Versailles as a measure of her fearful pride, that Mme Sophie, Louis XV’s daughter was reduced to hysterical amiability only by an electric storm when her terror would drive her to hug perfect strangers, and chatter with the lowest of the low crowding the Hall of Mirrors.

Are you one of those who can detect within themselves the approach of a storm, either by scent or headache or a mounting sense of depression, oppression, high-strung tension?  The light becomes lurid, opaque; and the outlines of buildings,flowers and trees seem strangely crisp and distinct, as though emphasised by a black crayon. The landscape glows with eerie vibrancy. The senses are all on edge, colours are unnnaturally brilliant and clear; you smell the damp wash of the coming rain and the relief when the clouds burst is like the breaking down of years of inhibitions, an almost sexual release. Moody and magnificent, stressy and surreal: like the effects of a strange and cerebral perfume.

The master of scents of coruscating colour, polish and bizarre beauty, Pierre Guillaume conjures up an olfactory echo of electric turbulence in his Huitieme Art jewel Ciel d’Airain. A minimalist masterpiece of accords of pear, olive wood and amber this perfume opens with a sharp sweet keyed-up agitation of summer fruit, gradually relaxing and softening into powdery softness as the storms breaks from black and violet clouds over the Umbrian hills; the sun finally emerging to dry the steaming earth.

Caron‘s Royal Bain de Caron (alas! hard to find today) is like standing in a torrent of warm pink tropical rain; drenched in roses, wisteria and jasmine torn from their stems by the downpour. Pierre Guillaume’s Naivris is superbly sinister, a scarlet spicy African iris brooding and simmering in thick, hot, suffocating heat before the deluge opens and turns the red dust to a sea of crimson mud. If you’ve never read Louis Bromfield’s novel The Rains Came, try it while wearing this scent: a miasma of troubling sensuality. Cathartic and erotic. I leave it to you.

Image from