Versatile and beautiful, thymes should have a place in every herb garden. All thymes are perennial herbs with very small leaves and tiny flowers ranging in color from white through pink to deep rose-magenta. The creeping types, such as mother-of-thyme (Thymus serpyllum), will cover bricks and stones or low walls and can tolerate a certain amount of foot traffic. T. ‘Coccineus’ is a mat-forming cultivar with showy reddish purple flowers and bronze fall foliage. The bush forms are 6 to 8 inches high and have woody, wiry stems and branches.
Common thyme (T. vulgaris) is the type of thyme most frequently used for cooking. Most thymes are very fragrant, with aromas reminiscent of coconut, orange, balsam, oregano, lime, or nutmeg. Golden lemon thyme (T. * citriodorus ‘Aureus’) has yellow-edged leaves and a strong lemon odor. Zones 4 or 5–9, depending on the species and cultivar.
How to grow
Thymes need full sun and a dry, gritty soil. Buy named cultivars as plants, or plant thyme seed outdoors in a prepared bed in fall or spring, or start your seeds in flats indoors. Bush thymes (except for variegated cultivars) often seed themselves freely, so there should be no shortage of new plants if the old ones don’t come through a hard winter. To propagate cultivars, separate rooted pieces or take cuttings. In the North, protect plants from winter damage with a covering of evergreen boughs.
When plants are beginning to flower, cut off the top half and hang to dry in a shady place or dry on trays in a food dehydrator. Once the leaves are thoroughly dry, strip them from the stems and store in a dark place until ready to use. You may harvest pieces from thyme plants all summer, but don’t cut them back severely in fall.
One of the essential oils in thyme is thymol, still used by pharmacists, especially in cough remedies. Thyme is antiseptic, as well as an aid to digestion. In the kitchen, thyme is a wonderful addition to pasta and pizza sauces, salad dressings, stews, stuffings, meat loaf, and soups, and is especially good with poultry, fish, and eggs.
Learn more about gardening with herbs.