The International Herb Association has selected thyme as the 1997 Herb of the Year. Organized in 1982 the goals of the association are to inform the public about herbs and how they affect our lives. They have designated May 5 through 11, 1997 as National Herb Week. During this week, many businesses will sponsor educational programs, special events, and other types of promotional activities dealing with herbs of all kinds.
Thyme is widely grown both for its use in the kitchen as well as its ornamental use in the landscape. There are over 400 species of thyme, though not all are hardy in our area. In the garden, thyme can be utilized as a low-growing border in the perennial bed or a nice break between stepping stones. It is also used in rock walls and rock gardens for its interesting foliage texture. Flowers may be white, pink, red, or purple and are borne in the axils of the leaves. Additionally, thyme can be containerized for use in herb jars or other containers.
As a culinary herb, thyme is used as a substitute for salt as well as blending with other herbs. Thyme-based vinegar and oils are often used in marinades. It is used to flavor soups, stuffings, casseroles, and baked or sauteed vegetables. It retains its flavor well in slowly cooked dishes. As a culinary herb, thyme is used to stimulate the appetite, clean the palate, and aid digestion. As a pharmaceutical, the oils thymol and carvacrol are used in mouthwashes, toothpastes, soaps, creams, salves, lotions, liniments, throat lozenges, and cold remedies.
Historically, thyme has been used by mankind since pre-recorded times. Ancient Greeks derived its name from one of its many uses: "to fumigate." Thyme was used as an incense in religious ceremonies and as a funeral herb. It was often placed in the coffin or planted on a grave to give rest to a departed soul. In the days of chivalry, thyme was brought forward as an expression of praise and admiration. Thyme has been noted as one of the "manger herbs," sometimes referred to as "Our Lady's Bed Straw." In the folklore of the British Isles, knotted, matted, and twisted branches of thyme in the garden or on hillsides were where the fairies lived. Fairies were the night workers of the garden, washing leaves, herding insects, painting flowers, and cleaning up and tidying plants for the next day. It is said that if you wash your eyes with the dew from the leaves of thyme before the sun rises on May 1st, you can see the fairies just at the moment of first light. Thyme's culinary uses also go back to before recorded civilization. Meats, cheeses, and fats were preserved with thyme adding its distinct flavor. It came to North America with the first colonists as a food preservative and a medicine. As mentioned earlier, thyme has antiseptic, disinfectant, and bacterial properties. During the period of the Black Plague, doctors wore "nose gays" and masks that included thyme when visiting sick rooms and clinics. Lawyers and judges wore similar masks when visiting prisons. Thyme was burned as a fumigator, and it was still used in hospital wards in World War I.
Thyme is easy to grow. Locate in well-drained soil and full sun. It actually thrives in poor, dry sites. Problems can occur in heavy soils or where gardeners water plants too frequently. One insect pest that can pose a problem is red spider mite. Regular scouting and appropriate control measures should keep population levels in check. Some species may need replacement every few years because their centers become woody and open. Winter injury occurs on the woody species, requiring trimming in the spring, which is not unlike many other woody perennials. Most species and can be propagated through seed, cuttings or division
The most commonly used species include Thymus praecox ssp. arcticus 'Lanuginosus'(woolly thyme), Thymus vulgaris (garden or common thyme), Thymus x citriodorus (lemon thyme), and Thymus serpyllum (mother-of-thyme or creeping thyme). Woolly thyme is very low growing (less than 1 inch) with an 18-inch spread. The small leaves are covered with dense hairs giving the plant its common name. The rose-purple flowers appear in late spring to early summer. Woolly thyme is hardy in zones 5 to 7. Common thyme forms a dense mound growing 12 inches tall and wide. Flowers are lilac to pink and occur in June and July. This species is the most widely used for cooking purposes. Harvest sprigs or tips of new growth frequently during the growing season. Lemon thyme has a distinct lemon fragrance and is used for its ornamental as well as culinary features. It forms a small 12-inch mound with small pale lilac flowers. Creeping thyme grows just 3 to 6 inches tall and spreads to form a mat-like perennial. It blooms in late spring with purple, fragrant flowers. Many cultivars of creeping thyme have lemon scented foliage and interesting leaf variegation.
As you begin the gardening season in earnest this year, don't forget the importance of herbs in the garden, both for their appearance and their usefulness in the kitchen.
This article originally appeared in the April 4, 1997 issue, pp. 37-38.