Thyme, a member of the mint (Mentha spp.) family, is among the most popular garden and kitchen herbs. Its tiny, gray-green leaves have a pungent, slightly lemony flavor and minty aroma. Native to the Mediterranean and southeastern Italy, thyme has naturalized in temperate regions throughout the world. The genus includes about 350 species of aromatic woody perennial shrubs and subshrubs that vary in flavor and aroma, but most can be used in cooking. Scientists believe that thyme was cultivated in Sumer in ancient Mesopotamia as long ago as 3000 BCE.
The plant’s name is thought to come from the Greek word thumus, meaning “courage.” In ancient times, people believed that thyme promoted bravery, and medieval knights carried sprigs of the plant as a symbol of their valor. At one time, thyme also symbolized death, and the souls of the dead were believed to rest in the herb’s flowers.
Ancient Romans burned the herb in the hope that the scented smoke would repel scorpions; they also strewed the sweet-smelling herb on floors and used it to flavor cheese. The emperor Charlemagne ordered the planting of thyme in all of his gardens for its culinary and medicinal attributes.
The herb’s antibacterial properties — correctly ascribed in the 1700s to the presence of the compound thymol — helped preserve meats before refrigeration was available. The ancient Egyptians also used thyme as a preservative; the essential oil was used for embalming the dead.
Common Name: Garden Thyme
Description: Sprawling woody plant with wiry stems, 4 to 18 inches tall; tiny, aromatic, evergreen leaves; mauve-pink or white flowers
Hardiness: Zone 5
Flowering: Early summer
Parts Used: Leaves
Range/Habitat: Native to the Mediterranean region, naturalized in temperate regions worldwide
Thyme is a popular and widely used flavoring in poultry, seafood, and vegetable dishes. The herb pairs particularly well with carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, summer squash, and mushrooms. It retains its flavor in slow-cooked dishes and can be bundled together with bay and sage to make a bouquet garni for soups, stocks, and stews. For hundreds of years, bees on Mount Hymettus near Athens, Greece, have produced a beloved wild thyme honey. Benedictine monks added thyme to their famous liqueur.
Thyme was used by the ancient Romans to treat coughs, improve digestion, and expel worms — much as the herb is used today. Thyme is rich in volatile oils that have powerful antimicrobial, anti-fungal, and antispasmodic properties, but it is best known for its expectorant effects. Thyme tea eases coughs and bronchial spasms and helps clear the congestion and mucus of a cold.
Like most culinary herbs, thyme benefits digestion by relaxing the smooth muscle tissue of your gastrointestinal tract. Thyme is also rich in disease-fighting antioxidants. Extracts of the herb can be used as an antibacterial against Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria thought to cause stomach ulcers. Thyme’s antibacterial properties can be used externally, too. Placing crushed thyme leaves on a minor cut, scrape, or other wound can prevent bacteria from entering.
Used in massage oil, essential oil of thyme helps warm and relax tired and sore muscles. Thymol, an extract of the herb’s volatile oil, is an ingredient in many commercially available products, including cough drops, mouthwashes, dental-care products, chest rubs, and cosmetics.
Caution: Thyme should not be consumed in large amounts by pregnant women; small amounts used in cooking should not be a problem. Thyme essential oil is for external use only; always dilute it and do not give it to children or use it during pregnancy. The oil can irritate skin and mucous membranes.
Thyme makes an attractive edging or groundcover in garden borders, beds, and containers. Creeping varieties, such as ‘Bressingham Pink’ and ‘Coconut’, are excellent for planting between stepping stones in a pathway; the plants will grow to form a dense, carpetlike filler and will not be harmed by foot traffic. Thyme also adapts well to rock gardens, rock wall plantings, and raised terraces, where it can sprawl and cascade. The flowers attract butterflies and bees.
Dried thyme leaves add a pleasant scent to sachets and potpourris. Some gardeners plant thyme near members of the cabbage family to discourage flea beetles, cabbageworms, whiteflies, and other pests. People have also used thyme indoors to repel moths.
How to grow it
Thyme thrives in well-drained soil and full sun. Plant nursery-grown transplants in spring. Or, about 8 weeks before your last frost date, start seeds indoors in flats under lights; transplant the seedlings to your garden when the weather warms. Space plants 12 to 18 inches apart. Mulch seedlings to prevent weed competition until the plants are established. Harvest sprigs of established plants just prior to flowering, in early summer. (Harvesting sprigs after flowering can make the plants more susceptible to winter kill.) Propagate thyme by root division in spring or fall, or by cuttings taken in summer.