Three years ago, on Mother’s Day, I received a terracotta planter filled with annuals in bloom. In the fall, after the first frost, I ripped out the dead plants and stowed the pot in the garage. One January morning, as I got into the car, I noticed a few green shoots peeking out of the pot, stretching with all their might towards the pallid light that seeped through the narrow window of the automatic door. I sympathized with them but didn’t think they had much hope—surely the next cold snap, let alone two more months of darkness, would do them in.
But the little sprouts persevered. Their leggy stems got longer, and a few more leaves appeared, still reaching desperately towards the window. In the spring, when I put it outside, the plant breathed a sigh of relief, plumed its feathers, and filled the pot with new shoots. It celebrated the solstice by bursting into sprays of lavender-colored blooms. The bees and the butterflies found it, and were well pleased.
When a friend told me that the plant was hyssop, I was astonished. Until then, the only mention of hyssop I’d come across was in church, during Mass. “Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor” the priest would intone, which the translation in my missal rendered as “Sprinkle me with hyssop, Lord, and I shall be cleansed.” Now the herb used by the Jews for millennia and later adopted by Christianity was growing in my pot, its leaves pungent and anise-scented, its flowers a bonanza to flying things.
My hyssop has survived two winters in the garage. This summer I am treating it with special reverence, watching out for its needs and wants. I have offered it an extra helping of potting soil, and I am alert to the slightest droop of its arrow-shaped leaves, which tend to sag in the heat. But the plant is as grateful as it is demanding. It may look in extremis in the afternoon, but it reacts to my evening drenching with an optimistic, upward thrust of its entire being. It is as resilient as I would like to be.
It\’s still high summer but, to my apprehensive eye, the days are noticeably shorter. The killing frost is a mere couple of months away. When that comes, I will stow away the porch chairs and drag the big pot, with its cropped head of hyssop, back into the shadows of the garage–and I will retreat indoors, to the cat, the afghan, and the fireplace.
From all indications the coming winter will be long and dark. Unlike in past years, when I mostly ignored the hibernating hyssop, this time I will keep an anxious eye on it, to see if it is still putting out green shoots, and still stretching towards the light.