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January’s Herb: Thyme

Thymus Vulgaris

A Brief History of Thymus Vulgaris

Gaius Plinius Secundus, (circa 23 – 79 A.C.E.), better known as Pliny the Elder, said that when thyme is burned, it “puts to flight all venomous creatures.”

In mythical folklore, thyme flowers were full of perfume and nectar for the bees, traditionally the messengers of the faery world. The bower of the Fairy Queen Titania in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is described as being in “…a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows…”.

Thyme is native to the Mediterranean, and historical records attribute, in part, the naming of the thyme plant to Theophrastus, 3rd century B.C.E. Greek philosopher and naturalist.  The modern genus name, Thymus, may come from the Greek thymos, signifying “spiritedness” and “courage.”  Some historians believe Thymus refers to the Greek word “to fumigate.”  Regardless of the true origin of the herb’s name, thyme was used both as an elixir and burned as incense by the ancients.

Historians believe that ancient Sumerians were the first to cultivate the herb, as long as 5,000 years ago, after discovering thyme’s antimicrobial properties.  Additionally, ancient Greeks believed thyme and its extracts could restore vigor and mental acuity.  Thyme was burned as a religious incense to give courage and was an ingredient in ritual altar fires to purify the sacrifices to the gods.  The ancient Greeks also burned thyme as incense at funerals and placed it in coffins in the belief that the soul of the deceased took up residence in the flowers of the thyme plant, and that thyme assured the passage of the deceased into the afterlife.  More practically, sprigs of thyme were added to wine and fruit to help preserve them, grown around bee hives to help invigorate the bees and to provide the thyme-scented honey that is still made in areas of Greece as it was thousands of years ago.  The Romans believed that sleeping on thyme could cure melancholy.  Roman soldiers, often deployed for years on end, were often prescribed to sleep on a bed of thyme to help treat their depression.

Thyme is also found in other cultures.  It is believed that thyme was one of the herbs lining Jesus’ manger and is often placed in nativity scenes today as a consequence.  The Egyptians used thyme as one of the embalming herbs.  During the Medieval times, European ladies embroidered bees hovering over sprigs of thyme on the scarves of their knights as a symbol of bravery.  The Scottish warriors drank thyme tea to boost their courage and give strength before going into battle.  And thyme was used extensively in medieval gardens as it is today and continues to be planted on graves in Wales as a vestige of its funereal history.

Thyme Essential Oils and Medicinal Uses

Thyme has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties.  Before the advent of modern antibiotics, Thyme was used to medicate bandages.  Second century Greek physician Galen is credited as the first to identify the thymus gland, the gland that establishes the body’s immune system, and may have chosen its name because it reminded him of thyme.  Galen believed that the thymus gland was the “center of courage and affection.”

Thymol, the substance that makes thyme such an effective fungicide, was first extracted in 1719 by Caspar Neumann, an apothecary to the Count of Berlin and synthesized in pure form in the year 1842 by von M. Lallemand.  Today, Thymol is used for its medicinal value and is the main active ingredient in Listerine mouthwash.

Thyme’s Essential Oil (EO) profile:

Thymol                     10 – 64 %

Carvacrol                    2 – 11 %

γ-Terpinene                2 – 31%

p-Cymene                 10 – 56%

Medicinally, thyme is used for respiratory infections in the form of a tincture, tisane, salve, syrup or by steam inhalation.   Because it is antiseptic, thyme boiled in water and cooled is very effective against inflammation of the throat when gargled 3 times a day.  Thymol and other volatile components in the plant’s leaf glands are excreted via the lungs, being highly lipid-soluble, where it reduces the viscosity of the mucus and exerts its antimicrobial action.  Thymol also relaxes the trachea.  A tea made by infusing the herb in water can be used to treat coughs and bronchitis.  Other infections and wounds can be dripped with thyme that has been boiled in water and cooled.

For immediate cold/flu relief and to boost your immune system at the onset of a cold or flu, try this concoction:

1 ripe pear, cored and chopped
1 inch (or more) of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme (use high quality green leave thyme)
1 1/2 cups unprocessed apple juice

Combine ingredients in a small pot with lid and simmer 5-8 minutes. Pour in bowl or cup and consume. Take three to four times per day as needed.  In addition to Thyme’s antibiotic action, pear is soothing to the throat and contains antiviral caffeic acid, which is an immune stimulant. Ginger possesses ten or more antiviral compounds.

For health, leaf infusion can be used internally for indigestion, coughs, colds, sore throats, hay fever, insomnia, hangovers or poor circulation.  Use thyme externally in bath water for a muscle or joint pain, insect bites or stings, fungal infections, facial tonics or steams, hair rinse for dandruff, mouthwash, or as an ointment for minor wounds, sore muscles or joints.  Leaf infusions can also be used for household disinfectant.  Dried leaves or flowers can be used in potpourri or insect repelling sachets.

The essential oils in thyme and other herbs have come under recent scientific scrutiny for food preservation and crop protection purposes.  For example, thyme’s EOs were found effective in protecting meat from spoilage.  Food researchers also found thyme’s essential oils as holding promise for protecting vegetable crops like lettuce against Shigella contamination.  Research is finding that EOs possessing the strongest antibacterial properties against foodborne pathogens (e. coli, Salmonella) contain a high percentage of phenolic compounds such as carvacrol, eugenol (2-methoxy-4-(2-propenyl)phenol) and thymol.  Thymol has also been effective against ring rot and dry rot (Botrytis cinerea, Fusarium sp. (Fusarium solani var. coeruleum), and Clavibacter michiganensis subsp. Michiganensis), completely inhibiting growth.  The ancients who used thyme and other herbs to preserve food had good reason to use this low tech and organic solution!

Dr. Stanley Deans of the Scottish Agricultural College, Ayr, during the 1990’s carried out research in conjunction with Semmelweiss Medical University in Budapest, found that laboratory animals fed with Thyme oil aged much slower than animals that did not. Thyme oil apparently delayed the onset of age related conditions such as deterioration of the retina, loss of brain function and wasted muscles. The key factor was the high levels of antioxidants. More recently, cancer researchers are finding that thymol’s antioxidant properties may improve cancer treatment effectiveness by inhibiting free radical development when used in conjunction with traditional cancer treatment. Also, thyme honey, an important food in Greek culture, may help prevent cancer related processes.  Rich in phenolic compounds, Greek thyme honey appears to modulate estrogenic activity and reduced the viability of breast, prostate and endometrial cancer cells.

Warning:  Do not use Thyme medicinally when pregnant or breast feeding because it is a uterine stimulant.  In traditional Jamaican childbirth practice, thyme tea is given to the mother after delivery of the baby to help hasten uterine contraction and recovery.

Thyme Taxonomy and Characteristics

The genus Thymus contains about 350 species of aromatic perennial herbaceous plants and sub-shrubs in the family Lamiaceae (the Mint family).  Other members of the mint family include many widely used culinary herbs such as basil, mint, rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram, oregano, lavender and perilla.

Thymus genus members are native to temperate regions in Europe, North Africa, and Asia. The stems tend to be narrow or even wiry; the leaves are evergreen in most species, arranged in opposite pairs, oval, entire, and small, 4-20 mm long, and usually aromatic. The flowers are in dense terminal heads, with an uneven calyx, with the upper lip three-lobed, and the lower cleft; the corolla is tubular, 4-10 mm long, and white, pink or purple.

The botanic name and the English common name are both derived from an old Greek name for an uncertain aromatic herb.  There is some confusion over the naming and taxonomy; several members of the genus are cultivated as culinary herbs or ornamentals, when they are also called thyme after its best known species, common thyme.

Species/Varieties Suited for Tennessee

Most thyme varieties are hardy to ‐20 degrees Fahrenheit and can be grown in all but the most extreme areas of Southeastern Tennessee. As for which of the hundreds of available varieties to grow is a matter of taste. Some thyme species are highly desirable for their flavor profile in cooking like lemon thyme (T. citriodorus), caraway thyme (T. herba‐barona), and common thyme (T. vulgaris). These three thymes and woolly thyme (T. pseudolanugiosus), grown as primarily as groundcover, and wild thyme (T. serpyllum), an important nectar source for honeybees, are the most important species. Other thyme species and their varieties, like silver thyme (T. Argenteus) and Thymus praecox ‘Elfin’ are desirable for their unusual foliage or low prostrate growth pattern that add visual interest. Thyme is highly suitable for xeriscaping and rock gardens.

Growing Thyme

Plant Thyme in full sun to partial shade, in a light, dry, well-drained soil with a pH 6.3.  Space the plants 8 to 12 inches apart in the garden.  Thyme does very well in container gardening. Thymes are good plants for growing in the cracks and crevices between paving stones in the herb garden.  Being such a robust plant, Thyme can withstand being walked on, which will cause them to release their wonderful fragrance.  But be careful walking bare foot:  when in flower, Thymes will be full of bees –they love Thyme as much as humans.

All varieties can be grown in containers with free-draining soil, low in nutrients.   If the soil is too rich, the flavor will be impaired and the plant will become soft.  Water sparingly keeping the container bordering on dry, only watering if absolutely necessary, and when the leaves lose too much color.  Feed only occasionally in summer months.  Trim back after flowering (June, July) to maintain shape and promote new growth.

In the garden the same rules apply.  You can plant Thymes in poor soil, but must be a well-drained bed to give the best flavor.  Thymes are drought loving plants, but will need to be protected from cold winds, hard and wet winters.

To maintain the true plant, it is better to grow the majority of Thymes from soft wood cuttings.  Only a very few varieties, such as Common Thyme and Wild Creeping Thyme can be successfully propagated from seed.  Seeds can be started indoors with a temperature at around 70 degrees Fahrenheit to germinate, but keep watering to a minimum, as seedlings are prone to damping-off disease.

Sol Gilbertie of Gilbertie’s Herb Farm recommends cluster sowing, in which plants are set outside in a clump to produce a stronger, quicker-growing crop.  To do this, sow about 20 seeds in a 4 inch clay pot filled with a mixture of sand, peat moss, loam and perlite, topped with a covering of fine sand.  Daily mist until the seeds germinate, which should take less than a week.  Thereafter, water the base of the plants when the soil is dry to touch. Two weeks after germinating, Sol says to feed the plants either with fish emulsion or skim milk.  The plants can be placed in a sheltered, sunny outdoor spot once they stand 4 inches high, and then moved to the garden a week later.

Thyme plants are easily increased by softwood cutting from new growth in early spring or summer, the length of cutting should be 2 to 3 inches.  Creeping Thymes put out aerial roots as they spread, which makes them easy to divide.  Layering is another way, but works better with mature Thymes that are getting a bit woody.  Use either the strong branch method of layering in early fall or mound layering in early spring.

Since Thyme is an evergreen, it can be picked fresh all year round provided you are not too greedy.  Trim in early spring and then again after flowering.  Harvest leaves as needed or major harvest just before flowering, cutting plants back to 2 inches.  Harvest flowers as they open.  For preserving, pick before flowering.  Either dry the leaves or put them in a vinegar or oil.  Thyme can also be frozen in air tight containers.

Thyme is a companion plant for tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant.  It is recommended by gardeners to plant Thyme to repel cabbage worms and white flies.  Thyme is susceptible to fungal diseases and root rot and can become infested with spider mites.

Thyme leaves, fresh or dried, can be used in salads, stocks, soups, stews, stuffings, sauces, vinegars, beef, pork, poultry, sea food, sausages, vegetables, honey, butter, cheeses, eggs, rice, grains, breads or beans.  The flowers can be used in salads or use as a garnish.

Research Materials Used

Herbs by Jessica Houdret

Jekka’s Complete Herb Book by Jekka McVicar

Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs

Ortho’s All About Herbs

Growing Herbs by Richard Bird

The Edible Garden by Hazel White and Janet Sanchez

Sol Gilbertie from Gilbertie’s Herb Farm

Dr. Stanley Deans personal research

S. A. Burt, Antibacterial activity of essential oils: potential applications in food, Institute for Risk

Assessment Sciences, Utrecht University, the Netherlands (2007).

Bagaboula, CF, Uyttendaele, M. Inhibitory effect of thyme and basil essential oils, carvacrol, thymol, estragol, linalool and p‐cymene towards Shigella sonnei and S. flexneri. Food Microbiology 21, 33‐42 (2003).

Archana, PR, Rao, B. Ngeshwar, et al. Thymol, a naturally occurring monocyclic dietary phenolic compounds protects Chinese hamster lung fibroblasts from radiation‐induced cytotoxicity. Mutation Research/Genetic Toxicology and Environmental Mutagenesis. Vol 680, Issues 1‐2, 70‐77, (2009).

Tsiapara AV, et al. Bioactivity of Greek honey extracts on breast cancer (MCF‐7), prostate cancer (PC‐3) and endometrial cancer (Ishikawa) cells: Profile analysis of extracts, Food Chemistry, (2009).

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