Jane McLeod: Parsley, sage, rosemary and : thyme
October 5, 2007
There are more than 100 varieties of thyme, and any garden, especially a rock garden, should contain several. All thymes are fragrant to some degree, with the pungent scent coming from the oil in their tiny leaves releasing a soft piquant aroma from lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus) when chopped in the kitchen or in the garden when stepping on a ground carpet of wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus). Depending on the variety, the leaves range from dark green to gray-green to variegated, and the delicate, long-lasting flower spikes, appearing at the end of the stems, range from white to all shades of pink and purple.
Just about all thymes are natives of the Mediterranean hills and consequently grow best in full sun in a well-drained soil that preferably contains some alkaline. Thyme requires very little attention and should only be watered in very dry conditions and fed sparingly. It is a perennial but is hardy only to about zone 5, although a good layer of mulch with organic matter will help protect it from severe frost and will also provide most of the required nutrient needs. It can be propagated by sowing the seed in the spring, by root division of an older plant or from cuttings. Plant approximately 10 inches apart and keep it vigorous by cutting the plant back after flowering in summer, and again in the autumn. Harvest the leaves in the summer when the oils are most concentrated.
Thyme has long been considered by herbalists to be a nearly perfect, useful herb. The list of medicinal, cosmetic, and household uses is lengthy. Thyme has powerful preservative properties that were known to the ancient Egyptians, who used it for embalming. It also has powerful antiseptic properties – utilized in mouthwashes and toothpastes – and infusions of thyme mixed with honey can be used to soothe coughs and sore throats. Thyme soup was thought to cure shyness – mind you, the recipe also included beer – and the ancient Romans used thyme as a remedy for melancholy. Cosmetically, it was rubbed into the scalp to stimulate hair growth and prevent dandruff or as an ointment to do away with pimples. If you were more into your wardrobe than your looks, sprigs of thyme were laid amongst furs and other winter clothes to keep away insects.
Thyme has always been associated with strength and happiness. To the Greeks and later in medieval times, thyme was a symbol of courage. Thymus may derive from the Greek word thymon, meaning courage. Many of their traditions were related to this virtue.
Today, thyme is invaluable in the kitchen with two of the best culinary thymes being Thymus vulgaris, or common thyme, and lemon thyme. Thyme blends with and enhances many other herbs without overwhelming them, and most chefs know that a sprig of thyme is an essential ingredient in a ‘bouquet garni’ used to deepen the flavor in stocks and soups. When cooking with thyme, add it early in the process so the oils, and thus the flavor, have time to be released, and adopt the general rule of when in doubt, add thyme.