Thyme: We love thyme and grow many different varieties…the creeping sorts with their various scents, lemon, nutmeg, caraway…the woolly kind that feels fuzzy beneath your fingers, the silver-edged and standard varieties that grow in the shape of small shrubs, all ideal for the front of the perennial flower border. However they don’t always survive our winters her in the Shenandoah Valley so we are frequently adding new plants. It’s safe to say we’re mad about thyme.
The Garden Thyme is an ‘improved’ cultivated form of the Wild Thyme of the mountains of Spain and other European countries bordering on the Mediterranean, flourishing also in Asia Minor, Algeria and Tunis, and is a near relation to our own Wild Thyme (Thymus serpyllum), which has broader leaves (the margins not reflexed as in the Garden Thyme) and a weaker odour.
It is cultivated now in most countries with temperate climates, though we do not know at what period it was first introduced into northern countries. It was certainly commonly cultivated in England before the middle of the sixteenth century, and is figured and described by Gerard.
Description: T. vulgaris is a perennial with a woody, fibrous root. The plant has an agreeable aromatic smell and a warm pungent taste. The fragrance of its leaves is due to an essential oil, which gives it its flavouring value for culinary purposes, and is also the source of its medicinal properties. It is in flower from May to August.
There are three varieties usually grown for use, the broad-leaved, narrow-leaved and variegated: the narrow-leaved, with small, greyish-green leaves, is more aromatic than the broad-leaved, and is also known as Winter or German Thyme. The fragrant Lemon Thyme, likewise grown in gardens, has a lemon flavour, and rather broader leaves than the ordinary Garden Thyme, is not recurved at the margins, and ranks as a variety of T. serpyllum, the Wild Thyme. It is of a more trailing habit and of still smaller growth than the common Garden Thyme, and keeps its foliage better in the winter, though is generally considered to be not as hardy as the common Thyme. Another variety, the Silver Thyme, is the hardiest of all and has perhaps the best flavour. There is a variety, also, called the Orange Thyme, which Dr. Kitchener, in The Cook’s Oracle, describes as a delicious herb that deserves to be better known. This and other varieties of Thyme, including the Caraway Thyme, which was used to rub the baron of beef, before it was roasted, and so came to be called ‘Herbe Baronne,’ are all worth cultivating.
The name Thyme, in its Greek form, was first given to the plant by the Greeks as a derivative of a word which meant ‘to fumigate,’ either because they used it as incense, for its balsamic odour, or because it was taken as a type of all sweet-smelling herbs. Others derive the name from the Greek word thumus, signifying courage, the plant being held in ancient and mediaeval days to be a great source of invigoration, its cordial qualities inspiring courage. The antiseptic properties of Thyme were fully recognized in classic times, there being a reference in Virgil’s Georgics to its use as a fumigator, and Pliny tells us that, when burnt, it puts to flight all venomous creatures.
Lady Northcote (in The Herb Garden) says that among the Greeks, Thyme denoted graceful elegance; ‘to smell of Thyme’ was an expression of praise, applied to those whose style was admirable. It was an emblem of activity, bravery and energy, and in the days of chivalry it was the custom for ladies to embroider a bee hovering over a sprig of Thyme on the scarves they presented to their knights. In the south of France, Wild Thyme is a symbol of extreme Republicanism, tufts of it being sent with the summons to a Republican meeting.
This little plant, so familiar also in its wild form, has never been known in England by any familiar name, though occasionally ‘Thyme’ is qualified in some way, such as ‘Running Thyme,’ or ‘Mother-of-Thyme.’ ‘Mother Thyme’ was probably derived from the use of the plant in uterine disorders, in the same way that ‘Motherwort’ (Leonurus Cardiaca) has received its popular name for use in domestic medicine.
The affection of bees for Thyme is well known and the fine flavour of the honey of Mount Hymettus near Athens was said to be due to the Wild Thyme with which it was covered (probably T. vulgaris), the honey from this spot being of such especial flavour and sweetness that in the minds and writings of the Ancients, sweetness and Thyme were indissolubly united. ‘Thyme, for the time it lasteth, yieldeth most and best honie and therefor in old time was accounted chief,’ says an old English writer. Large clumps of either Garden or Wild Thyme may with advantage be grown in the garden about 10 feet away from the hives.
Though apparently not in general use as a culinary herb among the ancients, it was employed by the Romans to give an aromatic flavour to cheese (and also to liqueurs)
According to Culpepper, Thyme is: ‘a noble strengthener of the lungs, as notable a one as grows, nor is there a better remedy growing for hooping cough. It purgeth the body of phlegm and is an excellent remedy for shortness of breath. It is so harmless you need not fear the use of it. An ointment made of it takes away hot swellings and warts, helps the sciatica and dullness of sight and takes away any pains and hardness of the spleen: it is excellent for those that are troubled with the gout and the herb taken anyway inwardly is of great comfort to the stomach.’
Gerard says it will ‘cure sciatica and pains in the head,’ and is healing in leprosy and the falling sickness.
Oil of Thyme is employed as a rubefacient and counter-irritant in rheumatism, etc. Thyme enters into the formula for Herb Tobacco, and employed in this form is good for digestion, headache and drowsiness. In Perfumery, Essence of Thyme is used for cosmetics and rice powder. It is also used for embalming corpses. The dried flowers have been often used in the same way as lavender, to preserve linen from insects.
In this country, Thyme is principally in request for culinary requirements, for its use in flavouring stuffings, sauces, pickles, stews, soups, jugged hare, etc. The Spaniards infuse it in the pickle with which they preserve their olives.
All the different species of Thyme and Marjoram yield fragrant oils extensively used by manufacturing perfumers for scenting soaps. When dried and ground, they enter into the composition of sachet powders.
THYMOL, a most valuable crystalline phenol, is the basis of the fragrant volatile Essence of Sweet Thyme. Thymol is a powerful antiseptic for both internal and external use; it is also employed as a deodorant and local anesthetic. It is extensively used to medicate gauze and wool for surgical dressings. It resembles carbolic acid in its action, but is less irritant to wounds, while its germicidal action is greater. It is therefore preferable as a dressing and during recent years has been one of the most extensively used antiseptics. (*By recent wars, I think she means WW1 and WW11).~