Most herbal writers agree that thyme may be the oldest herb known to man. To the Greeks, it was an emblem of activity, bravery and energy. The Romans gave thyme as a sovereign remedy to people burdened with melancholy. Virgil and Pliny both recorded the antiseptic properties of thyme. The secret society of the Republicans in France once used branches of thyme to summon their members to its meetings. Legends abound that thyme is the favorite herb of fairies and Shakespeare supported that assumption in his writings. Anyone who has tasted the delicate flavor of thyme honey would be easy to convince that it was, indeed, fairy food.
There is disagreement over the origination of this herb’s name. Thyme is the derivative of a Greek word which means “to fumigate” (alluding to its effectiveness as an antiseptic). Or, it could come from the Greek word “thumus” which signifies courage. From ancient and mediaeval days, thyme has been considered a source of invigoration. Also associated with funereal traditions, thyme was one of the fragrant flowers planted on graves. In the language of flowers according to Kate Greenaway, thyme symbolizes activity (“busy as a bee” may have come from observing the feverish activities of these industrious insects around a patch of flowering thyme). Weeding chores are made more enjoyable with their symphonic sounds in the background.
Down through the ages, the unassuming thyme has maintained its reputation as a trusted and valuable help to mankind. In 1753, Linnaeus described eight varieties; over 60 species and cultivars are currently being grown in the U.S. Thyme was already extensively grown in England even before the middle of the 16th century. There are two general classifications: upright and creeping, but all thymes are perennial. Thyme thrives best with lots of room to spread out. The perfect site for thymes: rocky, slightly alkaline, well-drained soil and full sun. This plant will rot if planted in a poorly draining site; it needs good air circulation. If cultivated in heavy soil, you take the chance of losing some fragrance.
Thyme makes an ideal hedging plant; with frequent clippings, thyme vulgaris can be kept growing for several years. Or use the prostrate varieties as an edging plant along your walks. With stony soil or flagstones providing warm covering for the spreading root system, it will survive the severest cold. Yet, those frigid winter winds can kill all or part of a plant sometimes. Northern climates have the advantage of a snow covering for protection, but this smothers them and does more harm than good. Compromise by mulching the soil, tucking close to the base of the plant, but do not cover the foliage.
Your thyme roots soon deplete the soil, so add manure or fertilizer to the bed when you rejuvenate the planting. Sow seed, thinly and shallowly, after ground temperatures have warmed up in a sunny place of light soil. Seeds retain germination power for as long as three years. To produce a stronger, quicker-growing crop, sow seeds in a cluster. Mist daily until seeds germinate which should take less than a week. If you have started the seed in a greenhouse, they can be moved to a sheltered, sunny outdoor spot after plants are four inches high and look well started.
Take cutting anytime from mid-spring to early summer. Use new green growth for cuttings; when they show new top growth, you will know they are rooted. Thyme can also be propagated by layering or division. Ground layering is an easy method of multiplying your plants. Most of the prostrate varieties will be self-rooting by the end of summer. Many thymes benefit from division every third year. Old clumps should be lifted, preferably in the fall or late spring, and woody dead stems removed. Just save the younger outside growth for replanting. For those who practice companion planting methods, this herb is beneficial to eggplant, potatoes and tomatoes. Use thyme to repel cabbage worms and white flies.
Thyme is a perennial with a woody, fibrous root. Numerous stems are many-branched. This plant is a spreader rather than upright; the tallest varieties attain heights of scarcely a foot and a half. Its tiny leaves are highly aromatic with varieties emitting distinctive scents such as lemon, caraway, mint, pine and varnish. Garden thyme (Thumus vulgaris) is a near relative to our native wild thyme (Thymus serphyllum) which is commonly known as mother-of-thyme. The majority of thymes have mauve, lavender or purple-pink flowers. Blooms appear at branch ends in whorls of blossoms and last from May to August. The first harvest should be when the plants begin to bloom; cut back the entire plant to within two inches of the ground. Don’t take your last harvest too late in the summer as this will affect the plant’s ability to withstand winter’s harsh weather.
The easiest way to dry thyme is to spread the branches on screens where they will get good air circulation. After one day, if the weather is hot and dry, the crispy leaves will strip off the branches easily. Commercial harvesters must remove up to 15% of the stems, but we home users recognize that those soft stems can add flavor also.
Generally, thyme is used sparingly, as a background flavor. It is one of the few herbs that may be simmered in slow-cooking stews, soups, and sauces. Along with bay, parsley, and chives, thyme becomes the seasoning staple known as “fines herbes”. One writer describes the taste of thyme as delicately green with a faint clove aftertaste. The whole herb is used, fresh and dried. It is a vital flavoring for French, Creole and Cajun foods. Use it to flavor stuffings, clam chowder, sauces, pickles, stews, and soups. Caraway thyme, known as Herbe Baronna, is the choice for seasoning beef on the continent.
A property of thyme, thymol, is also known as a preservative of meat. The Spanish employ thyme in the pickle juice used to preserve olives. Fresh leaves and sprigs can be tossed into green salads. Because of its citrus overtones, the variety identified as Lemon Thyme (T. Citriodorus) excels at flavoring fish, chicken and other white meats. Other varieties lesser known with lemony overtones include: T. X C. ‘Aureus’, a golden variegated-leaved cultivar; T. X ‘Golden Lemon’ and T. X ‘Clear Gold’, low-growing thymes with yellow-green leaves. The ‘Clear Gold’ comes in both an upright and a creeping form. Long ago, the Romans used thyme as an aromatic flavoring to cheeses and liqueurs. Well loved by bees, thyme blossoms produce a honey of special flavor and sweetness.
Just as popular as a medicinal, Culpepper said, “Thyme is a noble strengthener of the lungs, as notable one as grows, nor is there a better remedy growing for whooping cough.” In WWI, the essential oil of thyme was used effectively on the battlefield to save lives. Thymol, a major constituent of Oil of Thyme, is a powerful antiseptic for both internal and external uses. Traditionally, a syrup made with fresh, pounded herb has been used successfully against the dreaded whooping cough. Some herbalists prescribe a tea for shortness of breath and congested lungs. Nothing can soothe a sore throat or relieve wind spasms quite like a cup of warm thyme tea. Its antispasmodic qualities make it effective in relieving asthma and stomach cramps. Inflammations and sores may be soothed by a poultice made by mashing the leaves into a paste. Thyme was once used to cure hookworm; there is a fatal danger in the strong dosage needed to expel the worms, so this usage has been discontinued.
Thyme’s major ingredient, thymol, has been employed as a deodorant. Thyme is also believed to improve the eyesight and is reputed to be taken for toning up the reproductive system. As an ingredient of herbal tobacco, thyme is good for digestion, headaches and drowsiness. Thyme pillows were thought to relieve epilepsy and melancholy. A hot cup of thyme tea is a good pick-me-up for wearisome and trying days. Try putting some fresh sprigs of thyme into a facial steam for toning up the skin. Its fragrant oil is used extensively to scent soaps, cosmetics and rice powder. Commercially, Germany is the biggest exporter of thyme for the industry, with the area of Nimes, France being a center for the distillation of the oil of thyme from the plant. Other uses for thymol include the making of colognes, aftershave lotions and we all know that thyme makes an important contribution to potpourris and those beneficial closet bags.
When attempting to differentiate the many varieties, thymes get confusing. Some generalities I have absorbed in researching this article follow. English and French Thyme are both forms of Thymus vulgaris; other cultivars of hybrids of T. vulgaris include: T. X citriodorus – lemon-scented and pink flowers; there is both a green-leaved and a variegated variety. T. X C. ‘Silver Queen’ with silvery, variegated leaves. Among the creeping thymes, Caraway Thyme (T. Herba-baronna) is the best known. Harriet Phillips who has completed her doctorate in identification and classification of the thymes notes in an article that Nutmeg Thyme is actually the female form of Caraway Thyme. Crimson Thyme (T. S. Coccineus) has dark green leaves and is covered with small red flowers all summer. White Thyme (T. S. Albus) has tiny light-green leaves with a profusion of white flowers. Both of these spread into fragrant mats within weeks. Wooly Thyme (T. Lanicaulis) has soft, silvery, blue-green leaves and purplish flowers. Mother-Of-Thyme (T. Praecox) has more varieties than any other thyme. Its flowers come in shades of rose, lavender and purple.
Speaking from experience, no matter how much thyme you grow, there never seems to be enough; and there are so many interesting varieties that you could concentrate on just collecting these delightful herbs. Someday I hope to have a “thyme lawn”. A dense covering of fragrance that needs no clipping other than the removal of dead flower-heads after its profuse blooming.
DID YOU KNOW?
- It is best to dry thyme by hanging in bunches upside down.
- Thyme is known as the symbol of strength and courage.
- Thyme is considered to be one of the manger herbs.
- The affection of bees for thyme is well known.
- Romans used thyme to give an aromatic flavor to cheese.
- Lavender thrives when thyme is planted nearby.
- The dried flowers are often used to preserve linens from insects.
- Thyme grows best in limey soil and between stones.
A small, many-branched, aromatic shrub, thyme is perennial and rarely grows over a foot in height. It has oblong-lanceolate leaves opposite each other on nearly stalk-less stems. Its flowering season is in June and July. During its flowering season, it produces clusters of numerous, tubular, lilac to pink blossoms under 1/4 inch in length. Native to the western Mediterranean region and widely cultivated, naturalized patches have also been sighted in western Massachusetts. It has plant hardiness from zone 5 to zone 9 and grows well in light, dry, well-drained soil situated in full sun to partial shade. Propagate by root division of established plants anytime from mid-spring to early summer or cuttings of 3-inch pieces from stems with new green growth. Place the cuttings in wet sand and keep moist until they show new top growth.