The Best of Thymes

These diminutive herbs are small in stature but big in flavor.

October 22, 2012

Plants are like people. Some are drama queens and faint at the first sign of drought or bad weather. Others are bullies, pushing their neighbors aside and hogging all available sunshine. And then there’s thyme. It’s polite to its neighbors, blooms modestly, and is useful in the garden and home. Thyme is an herb worthy of any gardener’s attention.

The genus name, Thymus, has its origin in the Greek words for soul or spirit. Thyme has long been associated with burial practices, going back as far as ancient Greece, where branches were strewn on coffins and planted at grave sites. In Egypt, oil of thyme was used in embalming, and it was believed by some that the spirits of the dead inhabited thyme blossoms. English folklore says bringing wild thyme into a house will bring death or illness.

Thyme has associations that are less dire, however. Throughout history, the herb was also a symbol of fortitude. During the French Revolution, republicans in the south of France used it as an attribute of their cause. Highland Scots concocted a drink from wild thyme to give themselves courage. There are many accounts of people making a soup from thyme and beer that was regarded by some as a possible cure for shyness. If the thyme didn’t do the trick, perhaps the beer would.  

There are more than 400 species of thyme, a mix of small evergreen perennials or woody subshrubs with spikes of pink, purple, or white flowers. The taller subshrubs grow 12 to 18 inches high, and most are cultivars of common thyme, Thymus vulgaris. Midsized creeping thymes grow to 6 inches high. The remaining thymes are prostrate with tiny leaves, rarely rising above 2 inches.

Native to the Mediterranean region, most thymes have the same growing requirements: lots of sunshine and well-drained, almost gravelly, soil. Plant thyme in the front of garden beds for a border that complements more showy ornamental plants, or pair thyme with ornamental bulbs, such as daffodils; their stalks will push through the thyme in early spring, flower, and die back before the thyme starts to take off in late spring. Then through the year there will be groundcover above the dormant bulbs, which will help prevent accidentally digging up bulbs.

Thyme is very well-behaved and spreads slowly. It needs consistent watering during the first year but can withstand drought conditions once well established. Regular pruning in spring and fall maintains the plants’ health by removing less-productive old wood, the presence of which renders the plants less likely to survive winter because new growth is stronger and hardier.

Thyme grows from seed, but there’s hardly any reason to start it that way, as it propagates easily by other methods. Thyme’s horizontal growing habits mean that lateral branches easily root. Softwood cuttings can also be rooted in potting medium.

A sprig of thyme may be clipped any time to add fresh flavor to foods. Harvest culinary thymes before they bloom in early summer and a second time after Labor Day. Half of the growth can be safely clipped.

Thyme gives hearty flavor to soups, gravies, and meat sauces. It is a key ingredient in bouquets garni and herbes de Provence, two traditional herb mixes in French cuisine. Lemon thyme is especially good with poultry or when added to herbal vinegars.

Other Thymely Uses

Garden thyme is the source of thymol, a chemical commonly used in oral-hygiene products for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties. Because it is also antispasmodic and an expectorant, it’s beneficial in herbal teas for cough and upper respiratory complaints, and is sold as an essential oil.

Beekeepers often plant thyme near hives, believing bees that feed on thyme produce an excellent honey. Thyme is also recommended for rubbing on bee stings. It could be said that in our fast-paced world, we’d all benefit from more thyme in the garden.

Varieties of Thyme

Here are the most popular varieties to grow at home.

French or Common Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
This subshrub is the thyme of the kitchen garden. One attractive cultivar for hanging baskets is silver thyme (T. vulgaris ‘Argenteus’).

Red Creeping Thyme (T. praecox subsp. britannicus)
The tiny leaves of this thyme have very little scent or flavor, so it is mostly used ornamentally as groundcover. The flowers are purple to mauve. Commonly sold cultivars include ‘Doone Valley’, ‘Kew’, and ‘Albus’.

Lemon Thyme (Thymus 5 citriodorus)
This spreading subshrub reaches a foot tall. It’s one of the best for cooking—and one of the most fragrant. Watch for variegated cultivars such as ‘Aureus’ (golden edges), ‘Golden King’ (mostly gold), and ‘Silver Queen’ (cream to light yellow edges).

Caraway Thyme (Thymus herba-barona)
This creeping thyme grows 2 to 5 inches tall with pink flowers. Caraway thyme comes from the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, so it can take higher levels of humidity and rain, making it a good candidate for Southern gardens.