Tender perennial; ornamental varieties are hardy.
Height 15 to 50 cm; spread 15 to 30 cm.
Herb with small, dark-green or variegated leaves with hairy undersides and tiny, tubular, lavender, mauve, pink, purple, or white flowers borne in loose whorls.
Thymus vulgaris (English thyme, German thyme, Winter thyme, Common thyme): Most common variety; broad-leaf variety; grows vigorously, with a full, strong flavour
Thymus vulgaris (French thyme, Summer thyme): Narrow-leaf variety; greyer and sweeter than English thyme
Thymus x citriodorus (Lemon thyme): Best for tea; less pungent, with a citrus flavour, and thus better used in desserts and custards
Thyme is best grown from young plants purchased from a garden centre.
How much: One plant of each type you enjoy.
When: As soon as the ground can be worked; quite frost-tolerant.
Where: Full sun. Grows well in containers. Prefers light, sandy, well-drained soil; will grow in poor soil. Space plants 45 cm apart.
Care and Nurture
Thyme is easy to grow! Trim lightly after flowering to encourage compact, bushy growth. Fertilize only lightly for best leaf flavour. Thyme does not like to dry out, but overwatering and excessive fertilizer make the leaves taste bland. To ensure continued vigour in perennial varieties, divide the plants every 3 to 4 years.
When gathering wild thyme, taste and smell the plants as you pick to find those that are the most aromatic. For maximum leaf production, don’t let the plant flower.
For best flavour: If you’re harvesting leaves, pick them just before the plants bloom; if you’re harvesting flowers, pick them just as they open.
Leaves: Harvest throughout the season, as needed. Thyme leaves are too small to pick individually. Clip upper stems; use whole or strip leaves from tougher stems. Throw stems on the BBQ.
Flowers: Pick flowers as they appear. Flowers grow in clusters; clip cluster from growing stem and gently separate into individual florets.
Preserving the Harvest
In milder climates, thyme is an evergreen, so fresh leaves can be picked year-round. Thyme leaves dry well (see page XXX for methods) and can also be preserved by the ice-cube method (see page XXX). Thyme flowers should be used fresh.
- Culinary varieties will generally over winter if you are careful about the location. Find a sheltered spot with good snow cover and light sandy soil.
- Although we have listed only a few common varieties, there are more than 120 varieties of thyme, some from Europe, western Asia, North Africa, and the Canary Islands. Here are some other edible varieties you may want to try.
- Golden lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus 'Aureas') has a bright lemon flavour; its leaves have scattered yellow edges.
- The unique aroma of caraway thyme (Thymus herba-barona) is a cross between sweet caraway and pine.
- Orange balsam thyme (Thymus x Orange Balsam)has a wonderful orange fragrance and flavour.
- Nutmeg thyme (Thymus praecox ssp. articus) is a small-leafed trailing species with the scent and flavour of nutmeg.
- Oregano thyme (Thymus sp.) bears a hint of oregano in its scent and flavour.
- Wild thyme (Thymus serpyllum), also known as mother of thyme or broad-leaved thyme, can be used for cooking, but makes a better groundcover. It exudes a lovely scent when stepped on. Woolly mother-of-thyme or woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) is another ornamental variety with a superb scent, but is not recommended for cooking. Try growing it around patio stones or in a rock garden.
- In most areas of Canada, perennial thymes require mulching and protection to survive the winter.
- Thyme's essential oil, thymol, can be used to preserve meat. Thymol is also used as the fungicidal ingredient in mildew control products, and serves as an important component of many mouthwashes, lozenges, cough syrups, colognes, detergents, and toothpaste.
- Dried thyme flowers are used in sachets to repel moths from clothing.
- Thyme grown in and around Grasse, in southern France, is used in perfumeries. The thyme also supplies bees with pollen, yielding the thyme-flavoured honey that is sold in district markets.
- Scottish highlanders drank wild thyme tea to give them strength and courage and to prevent nightmares. Similarly, a sprig of thyme in a bed pillow is said to repel nightmares.
- One of the most important herbs in human civilization, thyme was cultivated in Sumeria as early as 3000 BC. Indeed, an ancient Sumerian stone tablet mentions thyme in what could be the world's oldest prescription: "After grinding together the seeds of saffron and thyme and putting them in beer, the patient shall drink."
- The preserving properties of thyme were well known to the Egyptians, who used it for embalming.