Our Pantry Profile: Thyme

Thyme {Thymus vulgaris}

Common garden thyme has been used for protection, courage, food, and medicine since the beginning of recorded history. A low-growing, aromatic shrub native to the rocky hills of the Mediterranean and Southern Europe, it’s now a staple of herb gardens around the world.

Roman soldiers bathed in thyme to maintain their courage and strength before a battle, and in medieval times, departing knights received thyme-embroidered scarves from their lady loves to keep up spirits and inspire courage. A popular belief was that thyme tea prevented nightmares and even encouraged dreams of fairies. Carrying thyme warded off evil spells and witchcraft, while sewing thyme and fern into the hem of a dress kept the Devil from taking a woman as his bride. Placing a sprig of thyme in one shoe and a sprig of rosemary in the other on the Eve of St. Agnes {January 20} was said to give young women visions of their future husbands.

Greek Physician Dioscorides declared that “{Thyme} finds distinguished uses as the healthy man’s seasoning,” referring to thyme’s culinary and medicinal use. Pliny the Elder espoused the use of thyme honey as a restorative delight. Herbalists in the Middle Ages considered thyme an important tonic stimulant and antispasmodic that treated epilepsy and melancholy. Nicholas Culpepper designated thyme “a noble strengthener of the lungs” and found no better remedy for whooping cough, warts, sciatica, gout, and digestive ills. During the waves of plague that spread across Europe, thyme was used as a germicide – a practice that continued through World War I when it was used as an antiseptic to treat soldier’s wounds and purify the air of hospitals and sickrooms well into the 20th-century.

For the Body:

Though there are hundreds of species of thyme, Thymus vulgaris {garden thyme} and, to a lesser degree, Thymus citriodorus {lemon thyme} are the most medicinal. Thyme is a wonderful source of vitamins C, A, and B6, as well as folate, iron, calcium, zinc, potassium, and manganese.

Thanks to antispasmodic and bitter principles, thyme is an effective carminative, relaxing the smooth muscle of the stomach to relieve cramping, bloating, and indigestion common with irritable bowel syndrome {IBS} and chronic gastritis.

Warm and drying, thyme also serves as an excellent remedy for colds and flu, drying up and expelling mucus from the lungs and sinuses, while its antitussive, anti-inflammatory actions soothe irritated bronchial tubes, quieting both wet and dry coughs. Combined with ground ivy or primrose, thyme is a proven treatment for acute bronchitis. A 2016 study verified a combination of the three, showing a significant effect on inflammatory symptoms – coughing and difficulty breathing – associated with bronchial infection and shortening the length of illness. All three herbs are currently found in some commercial cough syrups.

Thymol, the volatile oil found in thyme’s leaves and blossoms, holds remarkable antiseptic, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. It has shown extraordinary efficacy in combating common bacteria. Internally, remedies using thyme leaves target upper respiratory infections, candida {even thrush}, gingivitis, and streptococcus, and have impressive activity against H. pylori bacteria, the frequent cause of stomach ulcers. Externally, preparations of thyme essential oil {which contain thymol} can be used to effectively treat both fungal and parasitic infections like athlete’s foot and ringworm. In February 2018, a study in the Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences found that thyme extract has a significant effect on most food-borne pathogens, including E. coli, making it a consideration for use as a natural food preservative. Thymol is now the main disinfectant in many natural home-cleaning products.

Grow It:

A hardy perennial mint, thyme grows best in Zones 5-9. Thyme seeds are difficult to germinate; most folks start them from seedlings. To sow seeds indoors, gently cover with soil and water and put in a warm place. Germination occurs in 1-12 weeks. When seedlings are 4 inches high, transfer them outside after the last frost and plant 9 inches apart in full sun in well-drained, slightly alkaline soil or in containers. Thyme grows 4-8 inches high and needs regular pruning to grow well, so harvest often. Fragrant, edible white- to light-purple flowers appear from May to August and are a favorite of bees.

Keep it Fresh:

Although delicate herbs lose their flavor after freezing, thyme’s hardy nature makes it a good candidate for the freezer; put thyme leaves in ice cube trays, cover with water, and freeze; or place sprigs in a freezer bag. Take some out whenever you want to add a touch of thyme to your dishes. Thyme also dries well in dehydrators or tied and hung upside-down in a warm, dry spot. When dried, remove leaves and store in an airtight glass jar.

Eat It:

Essential to Italian, French, Creole, and Cajun dishes, thyme adds its earthy flavor to sauces, stews, stuffing, poultry, and seafood. It’s a key herb in a bouquet garni as well as in Herbes de Provence and Caribbean jerk seasonings. Spread thyme butter on garlic bread and sprinkle lemon thyme on custards and souffles for an unusual touch. Thyme blends well with herbs like rosemary, parsley, sage, and oregano. However, I must agree with Pliny the Elder: thyme honey is one of the best ways to experience the delightful qualities of this versatile kitchen staple.

Thyme Honey

Thyme honey is a delicious way to take your medicine. Use in teas, on breakfast treats, or all by itself.

Fill a jar 2/3-full with fresh thyme – even the blossoms. Cover with raw honey, stirring to remove air bubbles. Seal and set in a warm, sunny window for two weeks. When done, gently heat the honey to strain {do not heat over 110 degrees F. or you will cook off beneficial enzymes}. Bottle and store in a cool, dry place.

Contraindications: Do not take thyme in medicinal doses if you are pregnant, nursing, or have seizure disorders.