It was selected because of its long association with human history, its status in the culinary arts, its use in the world of medicine, and its place in our gardens and landscapes. Thyme is one of those surprising herbs whose many uses seem to bring us a fuller sense of place, true joy to our tables, strength to our weariness, and pleasure to our gardens.
Don’t let the tiny leaves fool you…thyme is a beautiful, pungent, and resilient herb. The genus of thyme is an entire garden unto itself. A member of the Labiatae (mint) family, Thymus is one of the earliest known plants in the world of culinary herbs, holding significant notoriety in the areas of personal health and medicinal uses, sacred rites and practices, and historic facts and folklore. As with the other members of the mint family, thyme’s varieties and cultivars are many, numbering upwards from four hundred. To the serious collector, this is a challenge. To the average gardener and cook, this list can be safely pared down to between six and a dozen varieties.
As thyme rarely mounds above twelve to fifteen inches in height, it is often referred to as a “sub-shrub”. Yet, even with its minimal size, this small, unassuming plant is one of the most universally used culinary herbs, having found its way into kitchens the world over. If it was not native to an area, it was adopted and soon naturalized.
In the Beginning
Thyme’s origins are logged by history and culture. It has been used variously for religious purposes, a flavoring in foods, a tea, as a food preservative, and as part of the world’s pharmacopoeia. Its name has been attributed, in part, to Theophrastus, the Third Century B.C. philosopher and naturalist, though it was well known and well used prior to his naming it. Greek written history gives various attributes to thyme which include its use to restore vigor and acuity to the mind, and its role as a fumigate against illness and disease, infertility in animals, and general malaise in the home. It was burned as a religious incense, as an empowering herb for courage for whatever task was set before a person. It was one of the chief ingredients in ritual altar fires, purifying the sacrifices to make them acceptable to the gods, and seasoning the viands at the same time.
Thyme also served in the rites of passage, burned as an incense at funerals and place in the coffin of the dead as an adornment. It was believed that the soul of the deceased took up residence in the flowers of the thyme plant. As a funerary herb, thyme assured their passage into the after life.
For the Feary Folk
Thyme has long been connected with mythical folklore. It is one of the plants in the garden that quite happily serves as home to the garden fairies. Due to its matted growing pattern, it can easily hide small, secretly constructed houses. Its flowers are full of perfume and nectar for the bees, traditionally the messengers of the faery world. The bower of the Fairy Queen Titania in Shakespeare’ ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is described as being in “…a bank where the wild thyme blows. Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows…” Indeed, no garden is complete without a patch of thyme set aside for the fairies. They are the night workers of the garden, washing leaves, herding insects, painting flowers, and generally cleaning up and tidying the plants to be ready for the next day.
For Your Medicine Chest
As a part of the world pharmacopoeia, thyme has been used as a food preservative due to its antioxidant properties. Its principal oil, thymol, has antibacterial and antifungal properties. Although no longer listed with the US Pharmacopoeia or the FDA as a medicinal drug, it is still an agreeable component in throat lozenges, dental hygiene products, mouthwashes, and topical skin creams and salves. After a long day in the garden or at a family reunion, a bath, which includes a few sprigs of fresh thyme and a cup of lemon thyme tea with honey, can change “weary” to “wonderful”.
When in Greece
Thyme’s recorded history comes to us principally from the Mediterranean cultures, from the writings of the Greeks and Romans. It was used in cultures dating back over three thousand years. It has been documented as a native plant throughout the Mediterranean, and in such unexpected regions of the world as the Alps, Iceland, and Russia. It is one of history’s oldest horticultural crops, grown for specific purposes. It is still grown for many of those same purposes today. Yet, with all that has changed with time, Thyme, as with many other herbs, has changed little, outlasting the designs of many who would try to improve upon its agreeable nature. Not native to the Americas, thyme became an introduced crop in the New World, making the voyage for the simple purpose of keeping fats from turning rancid.