Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
I have a tendency to collect plants. Something about certain plants that have dozens of species and cultivars makes me want to have every one of them in my garden. My husband argues that this is not healthy behavior, and that there should be a twelve stem program for 'plant addicts'. Any gardener knows this is totally normal behavior.
Thyme is one of those plants that triggers my urge to collect plants. When I first grew thyme back in high school in my little herb garden, I just had the standard Common or English thyme, Thymus vulgaris planted and thought that was all there was for thyme. Boy was I wrong! As time marched on I discovered the wonderful diversity in the genus Thymus.
The genus Thymus is a group of herbaceous perennials with great value as herbs due to their highly aromatic foliage. There are about 350 different species in the genus, native to Europe, North Africa and Asia. Within many of these species there are different cultivars, further multiplying the diversity in this genus. I have 23 different thymes in my garden at the time of this writing- it sounds like a lot, but realizing there are hundreds out there, it really isn't that many. At least that's how I'm rationalizing it to my husband when he questions if we really need another thyme plant.
Thymes typically don't grow much higher than about sixteen inches tall, and many have a creeping growth habit so they don't reach heights above two or three inches. They all share similar features of thin wiry stems and small oval leaves. The leaves are evergreen.
Flowers are borne in clusters at the end of each stem. Each spring, flowers in various shades of white, pink and purple cover thyme plants. Different thymes vary as far as flowering time. Some of my plants bloomed over a month ago, some are blooming now, and some will bloom later this summer.
While the flowers are nice, thyme is more valued for its culinary and medicinal uses. Today thyme is primarily used in cooking, but its history includes a lot of medicinal uses and legends.
Ancient Greeks believed that thyme was a source of courage, so they added it to their baths and burned it as incense. In the middle ages, women would often give their favorite knights a sprig of thyme believed to bring the wearer courage. Legends aside, thyme also has some proven medicinal uses.
Thyme contains the chemical thymol, which has antiseptic properties. Before antibiotics were discovered, thymol was used to medicate bandages. It has also been used to treat respiratory ailments. Today, thymol is still one of the active ingredients in Listerine® mouthwash.
As with most culinary herbs, the flavor of thyme is far greater in fresh leaves rather than dried. While it is possible to dry your own thyme leaves at home, since its leaves are evergreen, I've never tried. I just go outside and snip a piece, even in the dead of winter. The flavor is still there, and while it may not be as intense as stems clipped in the spring and summer, I find the flavor still superior to dried.
For me, thyme has an ornamental as well as culinary role in my garden. The creeping cultivars make excellent groundcover for hot sunny areas, and they can be walked on and even mowed. Generally speaking, thyme prefers a sunny location in the garden with very well-drained soil. Wet heavy soil will shorten thyme's life span.
I used to think that sunny and well-drained soil automatically meant thyme preferred dry sites as well. While they do well in relatively dry sites, I have the creeping cultivar 'Doone Valley' planted along the edge of a drainage area near one of our downspouts that drains well, but gets a fair amount of water flowing through it much of the year. I planted the thyme there with some hesitation, but it has flourished in this site.
Thyme roots readily along its stems as they touch the ground, making it very easy to propagate. Some of the creeping types hug the ground and grow so thick, you can propagate them by just digging out a clump with a sharp spade. In my garden, Wooly thyme, Thymus pseudolanuginosus, has this growth habit and is a very vigorous grower. I have to dig parts of it out each year to keep it in check. My husband is hoping to use this to his advantage in another area of our yard where we need something to grow between stepping stones that will fill in quickly and keep the soil from washing away.
Most of my thymes are planted between my roses, and in front of my berry patch as groundcover. They do a good job of breaking up what would be just plain mulch otherwise, and soften the look of the garden. They don't mind being walked on, so if I need to pick berries or tend to the roses it's not a problem.
My husband may complain about my plant addiction, but he does reluctantly admit that he likes looking at all the different thymes in our garden, and even asked if he could take pieces of some for his stepping stone project. I think he just might be becoming a gardener.