Thyme is one of the best-loved of all herbs. A versatile and durable perennial, its creeping branches can soften the harshest of rock walls, turn a stone into a comfortable tuffet or make a sunny bank into a fragrant wall of color! There are few other plants whose scent can rival the sweet aroma of thyme. To walk or lie on a carpet of aromatic thymes is a delight. Many old poems and stories relate the romance of strolling over stone walkways interspersed with fragrant thymes or sitting on medieval benches with thyme-covered seats. Many old garden paths were planted in thymes where each step of a passing lord or lady would release clouds of fragrance. Thyme was associated with courage, and many a knight had the symbol of a sprig of thyme embroidered on a banner, or etched on his armor.
That thymes were among the first-appreciated herbs is not debated. Descriptions of its merit are found in the early writings of Dioscorides and Virgil. Pliny noted, “when burnt, it put to flight all venomous creatures.”
The early Egyptians recognized the powerful antiseptic and preservative properties of thyme, and used it for embalming.
Gerard’s herbal, originally published in 1597, describes thyme thus: “Both Dioscorides and Pliny make two kinds of serpillum, that is, of creeping or wilde Time; whereof the first is our common creeping Time, which is so well known, that it needeth no description; that it beareth floures of a purple colour, as every body knoweth.”
Thymes were among the plants grown by monks and wisewomen, keepers of the medicinal plants throughout the Dark Ages.
Thymes grow wild in many countries, especially Britain and Greece. In parts of England, wild thyme is called “Shepherd’s Thyme”. Imagine how fragrant a hillside of thyme would be, when bruised by the hooves of grazing sheep. The accompanying shepherds no doubt appreciated the plant, and often brewed it for a refreshing tea, or as a lotion to heal injured sheep.
Many of us are familiar with the phrase “Time heals all wounds”, but many gardeners are not aware that an old-time favorite herb, thyme can also heal wounds! In fact, thyme is one of the oldest healing herbs known to mankind. It has been commonly used as an expectorant for coughs and bronchitis, as a cold remedy, and externally for skin inflammations. For centuries, its antibacterial effects have been appreciated, even before bacteria were known to exist! In World War I, thyme was used with rosemary and lavender, to fumigate sick rooms and clean wounds. Thyme is a disinfectant ingredient in mouthwash, and in many other over-the-counter remedies. Check the labels of Listerine, or Vicks Vapo-rub, and you will see thymol, often as the first ingredient!
Thyme is also good for digestive problems, where it helps relax the gastrointestinal tract and aids in digestion. A weak tea of thyme was often prescribed for a baby’s colic. Strong teas were used for headaches and hang-overs, and as an external wash for ring worm and athlete’s foot. It can also be used as a hair rinse for head lice and scabies.
In olden days, thyme was often carried to prevent plague. In European folk tradition, it has been used for toothaches, stomach aches, cramps, flu, nightmares, nervous disorders, lowering blood pressure, and as a blood “purifier”. The thymes most often listed for use medicinally are Thymus vulgaris, or common garden thyme, and Thymus pulegioides, often called Mother-of-Thyme, or wild thyme.
Because thymes are extremely aromatic, and high in oil content, they have often been used as insect repellents, or burned as offerings to gods on Midsummer Eve. The fragrance of thyme was thought to relieve melancholy, shyness, and epilepsy!
Thymes in bloom are a delight for bees of all kinds, but especially honeybees. Thyme honey is a delicacy here, but a staple in Greece. Thyme honey spread on a piece of toast turns a mundane food into food for the gods! The flavor of thyme enhances many foods, and is beloved by chefs around the world.
With so many uses, it is easy to understand why thyme has continued to be one of the most cherished and valued herbs throughout the passing centuries. Although I grew nearly 50 varieties of thyme at the herb farm, I knew I would not grow that many in my new potager. In fact, when it came down to choosing, only FOUR thymes now grow in my garden, the four that I actually use and enjoy most. Here are the four in my garden:
THYME, LEMON MIST (Thymus x citriodorus cv.) Hardy Perennial. Long, narrow leaves have delicious lemon scent and flavor. The color is gray-green, softer than standard lemon thymes. Mounding form, lavender-pink blooms. 8” This is my absolute favorite. Because the leaves are narrow, there is no need to attempt to chop them before adding them to any recipe. It’s my go-to lemon thyme, fresh or dried.
THYME, FRENCH (Thymus vulgaris cv.) Technically a perennial, but not reliably hardy Zone 6 or north. Sometimes called French Summer Thyme or Narrowleaf Thyme. Tiny, very narrow, gray-green leaves. Excellent flavor, one that chefs insist upon! A pot winters indoors on a sunny windowsill, just in case we have a severe winter. However, the past two years it has survived outdoors nicely. Very upright, 10″. This thyme is essential for my cassoulet, stuffed mushrooms or any mushroom dish, pork or lamb recipes, soups, stews and many teas. I also use it as a hand-soak when my arthritis flares from too much gardening.
THYME, LEMON (Thymus v. citriodorus) Hardy Perennial. Lovely flavor and scent, used in teas, cooking, potpourri, etc. Vigorous plants with large, deep green leaves. 8″ Because the leaves are larger, it is very productive, so essential if I need a quantity at one time. As you can see, it blooms a bit later than the others.
THYME, CARAWAY (Thymus herba barona) Hardy quickly-spreading perennial. Long, narrow dark green leaves with excellent scent and flavor of caraway. Pretty pink blooms. Spreads widely with long stems in every direction, quickly carpeting a large area. 2″ I use this one to sprinkle over saurkraut in a Reuben sandwich, and in the cheese spread below.
And here are some of the recipes that make these four varieties of thyme necessities in my potager:
Thyme & Thyme Again: This appetizer is so good, guests will visit it “thyme & thyme” again! Mix 8 oz. cream cheese, softened; 4 oz. sour cream, 2 T. chopped English or French thyme, 1 T. chopped Lemon (or caraway) thyme and 1 T. finely chopped parsley. Blend all ingredients and chill overnight. Serve with crackers or vegetable sticks.
Lemon Thyme Cake: We made this delicious dessert often for guests at the farm, and everyone always asked for the recipe! Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a tube cake pan.
Cream together: 3 stick butter, 3 c. sugar till light and fluffy. Add 1 at a time: 5 eggs, beating well after each. Add: 1 tsp. lemon juice, 2 tsp. vanilla, 3 T. chopped lemon thyme. Add alternately, about 1/3 of each at a time, beginning and ending with flour, folding gently just until blended: 3 c. flour, 7 oz. lemon-lime soda
Pour into prepared tube pan. Bake 1 hr. and 15 min. Test center. Cool in pan 15 min, then remove to serving plate. Serve as is, or sprinkle with powdered sugar, or make a glaze of lemon juice, powdered sugar and chopped lemon thyme. Garnish with sprigs of thyme and yellow violas!
Lemon Thyme Tea: Mix 1 part thyme (English, French, or Penn. Dutch), 1 part lemon thyme, 1 part peppermint, 1/4 part crushed coriander seeds. If using fresh herbs, use 1 T. per cup of boiling water. Steep 10-15 minutes, strain and serve with slender strips of lemon peel and honey. If using dried herbs, use 1 tsp. mixture per cup of water. Store remaining dried tea in an airtight container. This is especially wonderful after a long day of shoveling snow!
“Bug” Therapy Tea: Combine 1 T. thyme, 1 T. sage, 1 slice ginger root per 2 cups of boiling water. Steep 5-10 min. Be it cold or tummy flu, this tea soothes.
And wonderful day, the sun is actually shining, so it’s thyme to garden! Blessings on this holiday weekend, and if you travel, be safe.