( Originally Published 1933 )
The Thymus vulgaris is native to southern Europe and is a dainty subshrub with grayish, evergreen leaves and woody stems growing about six inches high. The broad-leaved English and the narrow-leaved French are botanically Thymus vulgaris, as is the German thyme. They all look so much alike it is difficult to see their differences even when grown side by side in my garden. They die back somewhat in the winter but come out again early in spring, and from the whole plant, without being crushed, comes a delicious scent of thyme with also something of camphor and spice in it.
Root. The roots are woody and grow under the ground for a considerable distance, and from their woody stems grow little hair-like brown threads.
Stem. The stems are woody below and above are shiny as of translucent amber. The English thyme is somewhat taller and stronger than the French.
Leaf. The leaves are one-quarter of an inch long and shine with glistening glands; they are wider at the base, narrowing at the tip, and slightly furry. Owing to their hairiness they have a grayish tinge. The French narrow-leaved thyme has leaves an infinitesimal bit slenderer and a little more glaucous than the English broad-leaved variety. The leaves of both have a sharp, bitter, strong, aromatic, flower-like taste and burn a little, but the English thyme has a sharper, less flower-like taste than the French.
Flower. The flowers come late in May but last a long while, and when cut back, flower again in July. They are carried in loose, conically shaped spikes at the terminations of the branches. The buds are a rosy pink; the flowers have a tinge of lavender on the pink base. The stamens and pistils are not exserted. The flowers of the French thyme are a bit larger than those of the English.
Variety. Other varieties of thyme grown for flavoring are Thymus serpyllum var. Citriodorus Hort., which I grew on the rocks. The stems hang down in strings and the plants are not very fragrant. The flowers are purple, come early in June and last a long time afterwards, the leaves are dark, tiny, glossy, bristly haired, with bristles on the margins of the lower half of the leaves only. The flowers are one-quarter of an inch across, a true lavender with a purple marking on the lower lip.
Thymus serpyllum var. citriodorus aureus, golden lemon thyme, a variety of the above, is a pretty, recumbent plant with leaves the color of subdued gold. Some of them are spotted a true, light gold. The flowers, coming late in June, are pale lavender. The stems of my plants had tiny fluffs on them. They smelt of lemon and spice.
Thymus serpyllum, L., wild thyme, mother-of-thyme, serpolet, is a recumbent plant as are its varieties, one of which is called coccineum and has bright magenta-purple flowers; another called splendens, with pinkish-lavender flowers, tastes of camphor, spice, and thyme, while a var. album has white florets and tastes a bit of anise.
Thymus azoricus, whose scent, according to Boulestin and Hill, suggests the tangerine orange, while I think it smells of Ivory Soap, is also used for flavoring and as a substitute for lemon thyme, or in combination with it. It comes from seed and has slender leaves, one-eighth of an inch long, woolly stems, lavender-pinkish flowers in July, and makes round little humps like a vigorous moss in the rocks.
HISTORY AND LEGEND
Thyme was mentioned by Theophrastus, Horace, Virgil, and Pliny. Ibn Baithar tells how thyme kills lice, expels the dead foetus, and, drunk with violet oil, clears the head. There was a superstition that if a branch of serpolet, Thymus serpyllum, were carried into a sick man's house it would cause his death. Parkinson speaks of its being used in baths, for strewing, in most broths, with forcing herbs, to make sauces for fish and flesh, invariably to stuff goose, and with roasted or fried fish. It is used in these fashions to-day. Josselyn mentions "time." Sturtevant says it was in North America in 1721. Bartram in 1807 listed Thymus vulgaris and T. serpyllum.
Medicine. It is in all pharmacopoeias and its action is said to be antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative, and anti-pyretic. To cure a cough the Swiss used it with boiled milk.
Perfume. The oil of thyme is distilled from the flowering tops of T. vulgaris, T. zygis var. gracilis, and T. capitatus from plants grown in southern France and Spain, and is used in eau de cologne, soaps and liquid dentifrices, while the dried herb with others, perfumes sachets.
Food. The broad-leaved English thyme is used principally for seasonings, but I like the more flowery, narrow-leaved French thyme, too.
In Seville, a decoction of thyme washes out the wine vessels. In winter the Irish put the branches in whey, which they say makes an excellent drink; while in Iceland, T. serpyllum flavors sour milk; and in Switzerland it is rubbed over cream cheese, called "banon," made of goat's milk, to which it gives a peculiar flavor. To preserve them longer, the German Swiss put it with the fruits when they are dried, and a little thyme in the wine is delicious. Correvon says T. serpyllum imparts a good taste to rabbit meat.
Most of the thymes come readily from seed except the ones with variegated foliage, or other horticultural peculiarities, and these should be raised from cuttings, or pieces of stems with roots clinging to them. Thymus vulgaris seems to grow in any good garden soil. The recumbent ones root as they creep along, so are easily increased from bits of the stems with roots clinging to them. They like to nestle against warm, dry stones. T. vulgaris makes a neat and pretty border plant.
In southern Europe thyme grows on rocky and sunny hillsides, and they all like well-drained and sunny situations. I sowed some of mine out-of-doors in May and they did very well. Others were started indoors, and later transplanted, and this seems a safer plan for the rarer kinds. Some writers say the plants should be renewed every three or four years, but I find that the creeping kinds grow so vigorously they have to be severely sheared back if they are not to crowd out other plants.
It is said that the warmer the climate the stronger the fragrance.
Harvest. The plants should be cut when they are in full flower and then dried in the shade to preserve their color as much as possible. The flowers and leaves are both used for flavoring and in potpourris.