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Herb of the Month: Thyme


Last updated 6/3/2020 at 11:15am

Photo courtesy Walter Chandoha/

Thymus vulgaris.

This month's herb is one of my favorites. I know, I say that about all herbs! But with the current COVID-19 issues, the medicinal properties of thyme make it an excellent choice as my featured herb this month. There are between 200 and 400 varieties of thyme, but the most popular is English thyme and Lemon thyme.

Thymus may derive from the Greek word thymon, meaning "courage," and many traditions relate to this virtue. Roman soldiers bathed in thyme water to give themselves vigor. In the Middle Ages, European ladies embroidered a sprig of thyme on tokens for their knights-errant. A soup recipe of 1663 recorded the use of thyme and beer to overcome shyness, while Scottish highlanders drank tea made of wild thyme for strength and courage, and to prevent nightmares.

Sumerian cuneiform tablets in 2750 B.C. suggested that thyme be dried and pulverized with pears and figs and enough water to make a thick paste for a poultice. The Egyptians used thyme for medicine and to embalm their dead. The Romans liberally strewed thymus on their floors, burned it to deter venomous creatures and flavored their cheese with it. St. Hildegard mentioned it as a treatment for leprosy, paralysis and "excessive" body lice. (I'm sorry, is there an acceptable number of body lice?!)

Thyme is found in many antimildew preparations and has long been used in linens to deter bugs. Studies show it kills mosquito larvae. Thyme is used occasionally in potpourris and soap making.

Thyme comes in upright and prostrate varieties; you may have seen it in the garden centers as "creeping thyme." It has small (1/8-1/4-inch long) slightly pointed leaves-ranging from glossy dark green to wooly silver or variegated green and gold-that are highly aromatic; woody stems; and tiny star-like flowers that bloom throughout the summer in shades from crimson to pink or white. Here on the Front Range, it is a perennial.

In the garden, thyme likes full sun and well drained, dry soil. It can be propagated by seed, cuttings, root division or layering. Once you get it established, it doesn't like being moved, so make sure you plan well. If you do transplant, give it plenty of time to establish roots before any hard freezes.

Maximum essential oil potency occurs in the summer months of July and August. The smaller leaves yield the most flavor. It is quite susceptible to root rot and fungal disease when grown in soil that is too moist and heavy, so it will grow very well here in Colorado as long as you don't overwater it. It grows well with lavender and sage; it attracts bees into the garden and repels cabbageworms. So you may want to plant a clump or put a small pot of it in the garden with your cabbage plants. The leaves are best while thyme is in bloom.

Thyme is spicy and warm and is excellent tonic for the lungs, liver and stomach. Thyme's main medicinal role is in treating coughs (including whooping cough) and clearing congestion. It makes an excellent gargle or mouthwash for sore throats and infected gums. Many pharmaceutical gargles, cough drops, mouthwashes, and vapor rubs contain thyme's constituent thymol, which destroys bacteria, some fungus, and the shingles virus (herpes zoster).

Thyme improves digestion, relaxing stomach muscles. It reduces the prostaglandins responsible for many menstrual cramps. Thyme also helps destroy intestinal parasites (especially hookworms and roundworms).

Used externally, it is very effective for infected wounds. It has a soothing, sedative action on nerves. Thyme is also an expectorant and will help reduce spasms. It induces perspiration to break fever and aid in beginning of colds. Normal dosage when used medicinally is 10-30 drops of extract three times per day. For an infusion, pour a cup of boiling water on two teaspoon of the dried herb and let infuse for 10 minutes. Drink three times a day.

If you're feeling particularly adventurous and have a nice mound of thyme growing in your garden, here's a lovely recipe.

Thyme Cough Drops

4 fresh thyme sprigs

16 oz distilled water

1 Tbsp unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

¼ cup local, raw honey

1 tsp oil of orange – NOT essential oil!!

1 tsp cream of tartar

1 candy thermometer

In a small, heavy-bottomed pot with a tightly fitting lid, bring the thyme and distilled water to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Set aside to steep overnight. Coat an 8-inch-square cake pan with two teaspoons of butter. Set aside. Coat a medium, heavy-bottomed pot with the remaining butter. Strain the thyme infusion into the pot. Discard the spent herb. Add the sugar, honey, oil of orange and cream of tartar. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Cook over medium-high heat, moving the pot in a circular motion to swirl the liquid until it boils. Take the temperature. Swirl-cook at a boil, until the thermometer reads 300F. Pour the syrup into the cake pan. Set aside about 5 minutes. Score the semi-hard syrup into half-inch squares with a knife. Set aside to harden, about 30 minutes. Turn out on a sheet of waxed paper. Break into cough drops along the scored lines. Stored in an airtight container, they'll stay fresh for months.

Culinary Uses: Thyme is used for adding layers of flavor without being overwhelming. It's commonly used to season soups, sauces and braises. It also makes a welcome addition in potatoes, rice dishes, vegetables and even fresh bread. Thyme is often included in seasoning blends for poultry and stuffing and also commonly used in fish sauces, chowders and soups. It goes well with lamb and veal as well as in eggs, custards and croquettes. Thyme often is paired with tomatoes. It has a subtle, dry aroma and a slightly minty flavor, while the lemon variety will add a subtle lemon flavor to your food along with the wonderful medicinal properties. Remember, 1 tsp of dried herb = 3 tablespoons of fresh! Always add at the end of your cooking.

I use herbs in everything I cook. Thyme goes so well with everything and, like most culinary herbs, is very beneficial to the digestive tract. So plant some of this in your garden today!

Valere! (Be Well!)


Editor's note: Have questions for the herbalist? Email them to: [email protected]


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