Common thyme is a low-growing, tiny leafed perennial ground cover and it is believed that the Romans took it to the countries they conquered in northern Europe. It was grown by monks in their cloister gardens and used in teas and syrups for many ailments. Thyme was also widely used in Egypt in their embalming procedures. Because they believed it was a source of courage. The Greeks used thyme in their baths and burnt it as incense in their temples. It was also used to preserve food and the goats and sheep were encouraged to graze on the wild plants to keep them healthy and improve the flavour of the meat produced.
Today thyme has many medicinal uses because we know it contains a powerful volatile oil called “thymol”, known for its powerful antiseptic, antiviral and antibacterial properties. Thymol is the main active ingredient in various commercially produced mouthwashes such as Listerine; used for many mouth ailments and to kill bacteria. Because of its powerful antiseptic, antiviral and antibacterial properties fresh thyme tea is an effective treatment for the whole respiratory system and will strengthen the lungs.
This herb holds its flavour well in cooking and is added early in the cooking process to release the greatest flavour. Thyme goes well with almost everything and aids digestion by breaking up fatty foods. It blends well with other flavours of the Mediterranean region like garlic, olive oil and tomatoes. Thyme is a common component of the bouquet garni, ‘fines herbes’, and ‘herbes de Provence’ and is used to flavour casseroles, soups, stews, and also many fish and meat dishes, especially pork and poultry. It is wonderful in sauces and marinades, salads and with vegetables such as mushrooms, potatoes, eggplant, marrow, onion, beans and beetroot; and delicious added to breads, omelettes and savoury butter.
There are many varieties of thyme which are grown in gardens, either as a groundcover or as a small border or potted plant. Plant them near vegetable and rose gardens or in pebble and rock gardens. Many low-growing varieties will cascade beautifully down steps, low walls and hanging baskets. Thymus species are used as food plants by the larvae of some butterfly and moth species and are very popular with bees. Thyme will stimulate the growth of neighbouring plants and love growing close to lavender, oregano, dill and mint. Because thyme is highly aromatic, it helps repel the cabbage root fly, whitefly, red spider and aphids; making it a wonderful companion plant for cabbages, onions, egg plants, tomatoes and strawberries.
Thyme is a tough short-lived evergreen perennial that spreads by rooting on the ground. It thrives in full sun and grows very well in coastal regions, tolerating strong winds. This tough little plant is heat and drought tolerant and does well in hot dry climates. Dryer conditions concentrate the aromatic oils in thyme, so keep your plants on the dry side. It is also very hardy and will tolerate snow and all but very severe frost. Thyme is adapted to chalky, alkaline; sandy and rocky soils but will adapt to most garden soils as long as they drain well. Water moderately during prolonged dry spells, and mulch the roots regularly with compost.
In summer, continual use of the plants will provide enough pruning, but if your plants become leggy do not be afraid to trim them. Shear back the entire plant after blooming, cutting off about a third of stems, but do not prune too harshly at the end of summer; especially in very cold regions. In spring the plants will respond well to a good pruning and an organic liquid fertiliser. Thyme will grow well indoors, if placed on a very bright, sunny windowsill.
Plants are easily propagated by cuttings, or by dividing rooted sections of the plant. Seeds can also be sown in spring and summer. Because of its high oil content, thyme is not affected by pests and diseases but is susceptible to root rot, particularly if the soil is too moist. Ants also like to build their nests in thyme beds and can sometimes disrupt the roots.
The best way to store Thyme is to dry it, and the best time to pick it for drying is when the tiny pinkish flowers start opening. It can also be mixed with a little water and frozen as ice cubes.
Common Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a bushy little shrub about 20cm tall and 30cm wide with grey-green leaves and masses of tiny pale mauve to pink flowers in summer. It is very savoury and fragrant, making it one of the best thymes for cooking and drying; as well as for flavoured salts and oils.
Golden Thyme (Thymus vulgaris ‘Aureus’) has delightful green and gold leaves and is grown and used in the same manner as common thyme. It makes a decorative edging for garden borders and grows well in a pot.
Lemon Thyme (Thymus x citriodorus ‘Aureus’) has attractive green and lemon-yellow leaves with a delightful lemon-thyme scent, and an abundance of pale pink flowers in summer. It is grown and used in the same way as common thyme, but is more compact. This thyme goes well with sweet dishes too, and also makes a delicious herbal tea. It is a very pretty border plant and grows easily in pots.
Silver Thyme (Thymus x citriodorus ‘Silver Queen’) is a bushy-growing selection of lemon thyme which is a pretty ornamental and, with its exceptional aroma and flavour, one of the best thymes for cooking. This low-growing form has lovely green leaves, variegated with silvery-white; and clusters of lilac-pink flowers in summer. It is also very drought tolerant once established.
Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum) is not often used in cooking but can be used in sweet dishes. There are very few ground covers that can be walked-on, and creeping thyme is one of them; emitting a wonderful fragrance when crushed. It is suitable as a lawn substitute for small areas, and ideal to use between stepping stones or near to patios and walkways. It is especially popular to use in spots where the plants can cascade over a rockery or wall and the pretty pink, pale mauve, or purple-pink to dark crimson flowers can be seen to full advantage. Creeping thyme tolerates many soil types, including heavy clay.
Bressingham Thyme (Thymus ‘Bressingham’) is a wonderful insect repellent but not generally used in cooking. It is a mat forming variety with creeping stems; making it an excellent choice between paving slabs, for edging sunny pathways, and in pots and hanging baskets, with its pretty purple-pink flowers, splashed with dark crimson.
Creeping Thyme (Thymus praecox ‘Coccineus') is not used in cooking but is a vigorous grower, tolerates moderate foot traffic, and is ideal as a drought-tolerant lawn substitute, or for planting between flagstones. Its fragrant dark green leaves are smothered by bright magenta-red flowers in early summer.
Caution: Excessive amounts of thyme should not be taken by pregnant women or people with a history of kidney stones.
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