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People have found value in growing thyme since the days of antiquity. Here’s everything you might want to know about this common herb, and why it’s a great addition to any indoor or outdoor garden.
According to Greek mythology, we owe thanks to Helen of Troy for the many wonders of Thymus vulgaris. She shed a tear, and the plant appeared as a gift of courage to the soldiers of Greece, and so, carrying sprigs into battle became important. A practice the Romans took a step further, adding it to their bath to soak up this gift of courage and bravery before battle. Naturally, thyme went wherever the Roman army did, spreading this now commonly used herb throughout Europe.
A native of northern Africa, Spain, Italy, and the mountains of Greece. While the Egyptians used thyme for embalming, the Greeks discovered it had medicinal value. It was the Romans who were brave enough to jump from being immersed in thyme infusions to enjoying it as an aromatic flavoring, beginning with liquors and cheeses. Its uses in the distant past include purifying rooms, burning in temples as incense, and during the Middle Ages, sleeping with thyme under your pillow was the sure path to peaceful rest devoid of nightmares.
BENEFITS OF GROWING THYME
There are some 350 species of Thymus scattered around the world, but only 3 of them have use as herbs. In the past, people have used this plant to treat just about anything anemia to warts. Modern natural medicine gives the essential oil quite a list of uses. Long used as treatment for a cough, thyme tea remains a popular home remedy for cold and bronchitis relief.
The Greek practice of using essential thyme oil for massages wasn’t without merit, it is still used in liniments for both humans and animals. Due to its strong antiseptic qualities, thymol from the essential oil was once used to medicate bandages. Today its the main active ingredient in Listerine mouthwash, and some all-natural hand sanitizers. Thymol has also been found effective for treating toenail fungi and acne. This power to kill microbes make it ward off mold on paper, and gives it credit for purifying water in some countries.
The flavonoids in Thyme increase its antioxidant capacity, and like other members of the mint family its recognized as a cancer preventative. Some say the herb aids digestion, however, it’s definitely a rich source of vitamins A, K, E, C, and B-complex, manganese, beta carotene, and folic acid.
The best known benefit is purely culinary, and having been spread far and wide from the plant’s origins, the herb has a place in many cultures’ cuisines.
CULTIVARS TO GROW
Thymus citriodorous: A creeping form that offers Lemon Thymes, Orange Thymes, and Lime Thyme. An excellent herb for growing in hanging baskets, it matures to 2-4″ (50-102 mm) tall and 12-23″ (304-584 mm) wide. They are perennial in zones 7-9, but you can move it indoors in winter. Use these in any recipe calling for the citrus it’s named for, be it sweet or savory.
Thymus herba–barona: A very different flavor known as Caraway Thyme, because it tastes just like caraway seeds. Used in breads and meat dishes, this creeping form grows 4-10” (102-254 mm) tall by 12” (304 mm) wide. It is winter-hardy in zones 5-11.
Thymus vulgaris: This is Common Thyme, a.k.a. English Thyme, French Thyme, and Garden Thyme. This upright woody-stemmed perennial is indigenous to the Mediterranean region, but is hardy in zones 4-11. It matures to 18-24″ (457-609 mm) high and wide, but constant clipping reduces its maximum size.
It’s hard to kill these plants once established in the soil, as long as they have excellent drainage. They are evergreen to semi-evergreen. All types of thyme thrive in full sun under average garden conditions. It deals with drought well once established in the soil, but provides better harvests with regular watering.
While it’s easy to grow any kind of thyme on a sunny balcony or patio when you have no ‘ground’ to plant it in, there comes a time of year that many will have to protect the herb by moving it indoors. Then there are those who don’t get enough sun on their outdoor space to succeed in growing it even seasonally. The good news is that you can grow it indoors year around. However, for best results use a grow light, especially when it’s been enjoying outdoor sunshine all summer.
POSSIBLE PESTS & DISEASE
In perfect conditions, thyme is very resistant to pests and diseases. Grown in stressful conditions, the plants are prone to mealy bugs and whitefly. Treat pest issues organically with neem oil products. Greenhouse growers note some issues with fungal disease without auxiliary lighting in winter. (Insufficient light = stressful conditions.)
You’ll be able harvest marketable sprig lengths 5 weeks after transplant in summer, and up to 8 weeks later in winter. Hydroponic yield rates are about 1 pound per 20′ (453 gr per 6 m) of trough in summer, and half that in winter, based on commercial crop results. When growing a couple of plants for home cooking use, you can snip tips at about 4 weeks.
In an outdoor garden, you can harvest fresh thyme year around. If like locating it beneath a snowdrift sounds inconvenient, no problem, it’s simple to preserve.
You can easily dry or freeze thyme for later use, and one of the few culinary herbs that doesn’t lose a lot of aroma or flavor after drying. Some prefer using a dehydrator, while others rely on the age-old method of hanging sprigs in a dark room for several weeks. The leaves readily separate from the stems when the cuttings are thoroughly dry. Store them in airtight containers or spice jars.
There is no shortage of ways to use fresh or dried thyme. In addition to keeping it on hand for home remedies, you’ll find it highly welcome in the kitchen spice rack. Recipes from around the world feature this ancient herb in beverages, entrees, side dishes, condiments, and desserts.