Q. Can you tell me more about the herb thyme?
There are about 350 species of Thymus (a plant of the mint family) but only six or so are commonly grown in gardens. Three of these are used in cooking and are amongst the most common and useful herbs for flavoring food. Thyme was used by the ancient Sumerians (ca. 300BC) and also by the ancient Egyptians (to embalm corpses). By the 16th century it was firmly established in Europe as an important herb in cooking and in medicine. It is an essential ingredient of Bouquet Garni, a mixture of herbs commonly used in French cooking (see below).
In addition to the native species numerous cultivars of thyme have been developed.
Here are the five most commonly grown species and some of their cultivars:
Thymus vulgaris (Garden or English thyme)
This is the most commonly grown thyme it is a bushy plant (6-20 inches high) which grows as a perennial and is hardy to at least Zone 4. It requires well-drained, sandy soil and a sunny location to do well. A slightly alkaline soil is preferred so lime should be added if the soil is very acidic, Thyme can be grown from seeds sown directly in the ground in late spring, from cuttings in late spring or early summer or root divisions in spring. New plants grow slowly at first and may not flower until the following year. For fresh use, pick individual leaves or twigs as needed. This will encourage new growth. Older growth can be cut back each spring to encourage fresh growth. For drying, twigs should be harvested just as the flowers begin to bloom. They should be hung up in a dry, shady location and when they are dry the leaves can be removed and stored in an air tight jar.
Several cultivars of common thyme are available. Orange-balsam thyme (Thymus v. ‘Fragrantissimus’ is a variety with an intense odor. It is not as hardy as the native species. T. v. ‘Argenteus’ is a variegated variety which is also very fragrant; it is hardier than ‘Fragrantissimus’.
Uses: Thyme is used so widely in cooking that it is not possible to list all its uses. Suffice it to say that it is used to flavor fish meats, poultry, vegetables, eggs and in soups and stuffing. Its flavor is pungent, similar to but milder than oregano. It is often used as a mixture with other herbs in ‘Bouquet Garni’. To prepare this combine 4 sprigs of parsley (or chervil), 1 bay leaf and 2 sprigs of thyme in muslin bag and add to stews and soups while cooking. Dried herbs tend to have a stronger flavor than fresh herbs.
Over the centuries, thyme has also been used for medicinal purposes. It is a potent antibiotic and a tea made with thyme may soothe sore throats and coughs. Thyme is also thought to be a digestive aid, particularly for fatty foods. Commercially, thymus oil is used in many products such as mouth washes, toothpaste, and scented soaps.
Lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus).
This is the most commonly grown thyme after Garden Thyme. It is another shrubby herbaceous plant (6 to16 inches). It is considered to be less hardy than T. vulgaris although it is reported to grown in southern Canada. Its leaves are a bright lemon color and it produces small purple flowers in mid-summer. Its culture conditions are similar to the Common Thyme. Several cultivated varieties are available, including ‘Aureus’ (with leaves edged with cream) and ‘Doone Valley’ (with leaves marbled in yellow, cream and red). In cooking, this thyme is used to flavor soups, fish, eggs and chicken dishes. It is particularly good with white fish. It loses some of its lemon bouquet when dried so it is best to use fresh leaves.
Caraway thyme (T. herba-barona).
This is a low-growing perennial shrub (6 inches) from Corsica and Sardinia. When crushed it has a distinct caraway odor. .It may be less hardy than the other two species. Its dark foliage and purple flowers make it a very attractive ground cover. It is also used in cooking. In Britain, it was traditionally used to flavor ‘Baron of beef’, hence the species epithet.
Mother of thyme or Creeping thyme (T. praecox; syn. T. serpyllum)
Seldom used in the kitchen, this low-growing thyme (2-3 inches) makes a very attractive ground cover. Subspecies articus is commonly found in gardens. In the wild it is an important source of nectar for honey bees. Wild thyme honey is a popular product in Mediterranean countries.
Wooly thyme (T. pseudodolanginosus).
This is another thyme grown as a ground cover. It is similar to Mother of Thyme except that it has hairy leaves, giving them a grey color. Like all thymes it prefers a sunny location and sandy soil.
Courtesy of the NYBG Plant Information Service