Growing Thyme: Tiny but Terrific

It's tiny, but thyme packs a powerful punch. Thyme was used in the preservation of Egyptian mummies and you may still use thyme in your morning grooming ritual. Thyme is also a delicious cooking herb and a fragrant, hardy garden ornamental. This year take the time to add thyme to your garden and you may add time to your life.

There are many species and varieties of thyme known to gardeners. It makes a pretty ground cover, and many tantalizing scents are available that are released when stepped on or brushed against. Some varieties have pretty flowers, which add to the appeal. Thyme is also a great herb for cooking. It's used with soups and stews, fish, eggs and bean dishes.

Researchers know a lot about thyme also. Thyme contains several powerful chemicals, including thymol, which you may see listed in the ingredients on your mouthwash bottle. Thyme contains powerful anti-microbial compounds and anti-oxidants. Along with basil, researchers are studying thyme as a natural food preservative. Thyme is a good source of iron, manganese, calcium and dietary fiber. Thyme is being studied as an aid to slow the process of aging, to improve levels of good fats in the bloodstream and to protect brain function.

Growing thyme
Thyme has tiny, oval leaves, slightly rolled under, that are dark green on top and lighter on the bottom, unless the leaves are from one of the variegated varieties, which may be golden or marked with yellow or cream. Most thymes are ground hugging plants, from just a few inches high to about a foot high, depending on variety. In spring or summer, thyme may be covered in small flowers in a variety of colors. Different chemical compounds found in different varieties of thyme account for the range of scents and flavors.

Thyme is native to southern Europe, the Mediterranean and southern Asia. Most types of thyme are hardy to Zone 5 and a few are hardy to Zone 4, but always check the zone hardiness of any variety you buy. Gardeners usually purchase plants, but thyme can be started from seed. Only the most common varieties of thyme will be available as seed. Seed should be sown inside about eight weeks before the last frost. The best germination takes place at 70 degrees. Thyme can also be propagated from cuttings or from division.

Thyme can be grown in partial shade as long as the soil is well-drained, but will be stronger and hardier in full sun. Thyme enjoys growing among rocks and stepping stones, basking in their accumulated warmth. Thyme will quickly rot in wet areas; it prefers sandy, gravely soil, although it will grow in most well-drained soils. Although many types of thyme will stand some walking on, heavy traffic will eventually kill the plants. You are supposed to step on the ends of stems that have crept over paving stones to release the wonderful scent, not trample on the plants. Fertilizer is seldom needed, although a slow-release, general garden fertilizer, such as 5-10-10, applied in early spring may increase flowering. In the North, thyme should be covered with an inch or so of mulch after the ground has frozen. Thyme flowers are greatly loved by bees, and if someone is allergic to bees in the family, thyme should not be planted where that person may step or brush against it and disturb the bees.

Choosing varieties
Two culinary thymes that have long been known to gardeners are English Thyme and French Thyme. Both are Thymus vulgaris and differ only slightly. English Thyme has larger leaves and is a larger plant. The flavor is stronger than French Thyme, which has a sweeter taste. French Thyme has smaller, grayer leaves than English Thyme on a more compact plant.

Other wild species of thyme have given us many flavors. Lemon Thyme, Lemon Carpet Thyme, Highland Cream Lemon thyme, Lime Thyme and Orange Spice Thyme are some of the thymes that lend a citrus tone to your cooking. There are also Nutmeg Thyme, Coconut Thyme, Caraway Thyme and Mint Thyme. There are thymes that smell like lavender and rose. Wooly Thyme has gray, wooly leaves and is generally used as an ornamental. Other ornamentals include Silver Needle and Minus. Colors of the thyme flowers range from lavender to pale pink to bright carmine red.

Using thyme
In the garden, thyme is a wonderful ground cover, lovely between pavers and along paths. It can be used in containers to drape gracefully over the edges or to edge a perennial bed.

In the kitchen, thyme is best when used fresh. The leaves are chopped and used in Cajun and Creole dishes and French cuisine, for flavoring cheese, liquors, vinegars and in sausage.

It's used in seafood chowders, poultry stuffing, pate and in bean dishes. The citrus thymes can be used wherever citrus flavor is needed. Thyme is also used in salads and as a garnish. Dried thyme flowers are said to repel insects from stored clothing. Thyme was burned as incense and flowers are used in sachets and perfumes. Medicinally, thyme tea is used for respiratory problems and sore throats. Thyme and honey are used in cough syrups.

Cautions
Thyme oil should never be taken internally and used only in a diluted form on the skin. Preparations of thyme used medicinally should start in small doses and be used in moderation. Overdoses can result in dizziness, vomiting and heart and respiratory problems. Culinary uses of thyme are generally safe.

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