Some believe thyme, botanically-known as thymus vulgaris, gets its name from the Greek word thymon, an herb used as incense or as a fumigator during sacrifices. Others suggest the word is derived from the Greek word thumus, signifying courage, since the plant was believed to be a great source of invigoration in ancient and medieval days, its cordial qualities inspiring courage. A member of the mint family, thyme is a perennial evergreen low-growing shrub, whose sometimes-woody stems are covered with small, gray-green to green leaves. Its small, two-lipped flowers range in color from pale pink to purple. The entire plant is aromatic.
Many Thymes, Many Fragrances
There are, in fact, over one hundred varieties of thyme, with the most common being Garden Thyme and Lemon Thyme. The many types of thyme are so close in appearance they can be difficult to differentiate, but their aromas help provide a hint. Just a few of the many varieties are, Oregano Thyme, Orange Thyme, Garlic Thyme, Silver Thyme, Elfin Thyme and Lavender Thyme.
Thyme Throughout Time
Native to the Mediterranean region and parts of Asia, thyme was brought to Britain by the Romans. Long-prized for its medicinal uses, ancient Egyptians used thyme oil in their embalming process. Legend has it that thyme was an essential ingredient in a magic brew that allowed the drinker to see the fairies. It was also considered an aphrodisiac. Thyme was considered to be a symbol of courage and admiration Thyme’s association with bravery continued throughout medieval times when it was tradition for a woman to present her knight about to face danger, a scarf embroidered with a sprig of thyme over a honey bee.
Thyme for Healing
Thyme’s best use medicinally is as an antiseptic, but it also has expectorant, antispasmodic, and deodorant properties. It aids in digestion, and as such, is excellent when combined with fatty meats that often cause gastrointestinal problems such as duck, lamb, and pork. Herbal medicinists use thyme in infusions, extracts, teas, compresses, bath preparations and gargles. Recent studies indicate that thyme strengthens the immune system.
Thymol – named after the herb itself – is the primary volatile oil constituent of thyme, and its health-supporting effects are well documented. In studies on aging in rats, thymol has been found to protect and significantly increase the percentage of healthy fats found in cell membranes and other cell structures. In particular, the amount of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid) in brain, kidney, and heart cell membranes increased after dietary supplementation with thyme.
Thyme also contains a variety of flavonoids, including apigenin, naringenin, luteolin, and thymonin. These flavonoids increase thyme’s antioxidant capacity, and combined with its status as a good source of manganese, give thyme a high standing on the list of anti-oxidant foods.
Distilled thyme oils are used commercially in the production of antiseptics, toothpaste, mouthwash, gargle, hair conditioner, dandruff shampoo, skin cleanser, various toiletry items, potpourri, and insect repellent. It is an ingredient in commercial expectorants and antispasmodics prescribed for whooping cough and bronchitis.
Thyme in the Kitchen.
One of the most versatile herbs, thyme works well as a seasoning for meats, vegetables, casseroles, soups, dressings, and even meatloaf, marinades and pâtés (in other words, almost everything savory.) It is an excellent addition for herb breads and flavored butters. And it is a good complement to mushrooms, fried potatoes, carrots (and other vegetables), as well as in omelettes and other egg dishes. Thyme is commonly used in clam chowder and gumbo; and is widely used in French, Creole and Cajun cooking. Try lemon thyme for a fresh take on fish and chicken. Thyme, either in its fresh or dried form, should be added toward the end of the cooking process since heat can easily cause a loss of its delicate flavor.
“Thymely” Serving Tips
• Add thyme to your favorite pasta sauce recipe (try Oregano Thyme to enhance authentic Italian flavor).
• Hearty beans such as kidney beans, pinto beans and black beans taste exceptionally good when seasoned with thyme.
• When poaching fish, place some sprigs of thyme on top of the fish and in the poaching liquid.
• Season soups and stocks by adding fresh thyme.
Thyme in the Garden
If you would like to grow your own fresh thyme at home, sow seeds from mid-March to early April. Plant in shallow drills about 1/2 inch deep, and 8 or 9 inches apart, in light soil. Cover evenly with the soil. Plants may be thinned and re-spaced – thyme needs a lot of room to spread. You can also start with thyme plants, available at your local nursery or garden center.
Because of its pungent nature and ground covering qualities, consider planting thyme to fill in between flagstones. You’ll enjoy the fragrance as you walk through your garden. Ground cover thymes are an excellent way to keep the ground cool and conserve moisture. Once they are established, these thymes also help to keep the weeds from sprouting.