Thyme keaves are a familiar sight in the spice drawer and the herb garden, but there is probably a whole lot about thyme that you’re not aware of. For one, the thyme family is very diverse. There are at least 350 species of thyme, each with its own unique flavor profile and uses. Gardeners love thyme because it’s hardy and perennial. Once a plant matures, it can produce prolific amounts of fragrant leaves for years to come.
Thyme is also very widespread. Thyme grows in the wild and in gardens throughout North America, North Africa, Europe, and all over Asia. For this reason, thyme has worked its way into the culinary and medical traditions of all of these regions, even if not everyone uses thyme leaves in exactly the same way. Thyme is closely related to mint and oregano.
Most varieties of thyme are evergreen, hearty in the summer and providing a nice green contrast against winter snow. These little shrubs usually grow to just over a foot tall, but compact concentrations of wiry branches all around. Thyme leaves are food for butterflies and moths, but otherwise, tends to repel other insects. Properly maintained, a thyme bush can bring lovely butterflies into your garden, without too much damage being done to the plant itself.
History records the first documented usage of thyme leaves in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians used thyme in embalming rituals, possibly after observing its effects of reducing bacterial contamination and in reducing odor in mummified bodies. Later, the ancient Greeks used thyme as an additive for bath water, and as an incense in temple ceremonies. The Romans are thought to have spread knowledge of thyme throughout Europe, and frequently used thyme as an aromatic and flavoring element for spirits and cheeses. Thyme was placed under pillows during the Middle Ages because it was thought to ward off bad dreams.
If you want to have some thyme of your own, there is no plant easier to propagate. Thyme is tough and vigorous. It does equally well in droughts and deep freezes, provided it is well-established. Thyme can be grown equally well from live cuttings, seeds, and pieces of living root systems. One gets the impression that thyme “wants to live”, as the gardener would likely need to be more than neglectful to kill a thyme shrub. Still, thyme does best in full sun, in dry, well-draining soil.
Even though thyme is no longer administered to stave off nightmares, it’s still a star player in the kitchen. It is an essential herb and spice in French, American, and Arabian cuisines, with regular appearances in the food traditions of many other regions as well. Because thyme is so easy to grow in diverse conditions, you can almost always find thyme sprigs in your grocery store or farmer’s market at any time of year.
Fresh thyme leaves must be used in a few days after picking, but they can last for many months if properly frozen. Dried thyme doesn’t have the same flavor intensity or complexity of the fresh sprigs, but it has a very long shelf life and is ideal for certain dishes.
If you want to take the leaves off a sprig of thyme, don’t pick them one by one. Scrape them off with the back of a knife, pull the entire sprig backwards through the tines of a fork, or do the same motion between your thumb and pointer finger.
Thyme has a great history and countless applications, both in food and medicine. We’ve barely scratched the surface of thyme’s potential in this guide, but hopefully we’ve inspired you to make some time for thyme in your life.