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Time for Thyme!
by Liesbeth Leatherbarrow
by Liesbeth Leatherbarrow

Liesbeth has written for several western gardening publications, including Gardens West and The Gardener for the Prairies. She has also co-authored three gardening books: The Calgary Gardener (with the Calgary Horticultural Society), The Calgary Gardener, Volume Two: Beyond the Basics (with Lesley Reynolds), and 101 Best Plants for the Prairies (with Lesley Reynolds).

June 3, 2007

Thyme was the International Herb Growers Association's 1997 Herb of the Year and no wonder! Its captivating fragrance, tiny delicate flowers, persistent green foliage, and pleasing mat-forming growth habit make it a very desirable groundcover for gardeners everywhere. Not only does thyme provide a great deal of visual interest, its reknown and suitability as a culinary herb add to its appeal in the garden. If you don't already grow one of the many species and cultivars of thyme available locally or through specialty catalogues then give it some serious thought; at least one variety can be found to suit every gardener's tastes and needs.
Thyme has an ancient and venerable past. As early as 2750 BC reference was made by Sumerians to the use of thyme in concocting poultices. Egyptians used tham or thyme in medicines and to embalm their dead, while the Romans strewed it on floors and burned it to deter venomous insects. In Europe, from the 15th to the 17th century, thyme was considered essential for combatting pestilential plagues and during World War I the essential oils from thyme served as a battlefield antiseptic. Beds of thyme were long thought to be the homes of fairies in England and gardeners there used to set aside a patch for them much as we provide birds with birdhouses today. Thyme arrived in the New World with the first European settlers and today can be found naturalized in some parts of eastern North America.
There seems to be no consensus on the origin of the word thyme although several suggestions have been put forth, each with its own logic. It could derive from the Greek words thymus, for courage, since the herb was good for invigorating the senses; thymain for burning incense; thymele for altar; thumus for energy; thuo for perfume in reference to the herb's sweet smell; or from another similar-sounding Greek word for fumigate, in reference to its use in chasing stinging insects from the house. Take your pick.
It is not clear whether the thyme so frequently mentioned in the early written record was common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) or creeping thyme (Thymus praecox subsp. arcticus, also sold as Thymus serpyllum) which comes with a long list of common names: mountain thyme, wild thyme, mother-of-thyme, hillwort, and shepherd's thyme to name a few. Both thymes originate in an area that extends from the western Mediterranean region to the southwest of Italy, where they inhabit dry, rocky soil. They are low, aromatic creepers belonging to the mint family, with common thyme having a somewhat shrubbier aspect than creeping thyme. They both have small, semi-evergreen, very fragrant, almost oval leaves that come to a point and grow from 0.5 cm to 1.5 cm in length. Their diminutive flowers are exquisite; two-lipped and tubular in form, they grow in short spikes and dense clusters that smother the plants in blankets of the palest lilac, mauve, purple, magenta, or white. Blooms persist from early June throughout most of the summer and are much favoured by the industrious honey bee.
Few plants are as friendly or as easy to grow as thyme with its modest requirements. Thyme revels in relatively poor but well-drained soil; good drainage is essential for the low, ground-hugging creepers which will occasionally succumb to fungus and other stem and root diseases. The shrubby thymes benefit from some winter protection for preventing tip kill and the occasional cutting back to maintain a tight, compact form. Plant thyme in full sun or partial shade 
Thyme expands slowly by means of delicate runners. Their root systems are also very delicate so they can be a bit tricky to transplant. Make sure that when you transplant you give them plenty of time to re-establish their roots before the first hard freeze; even established plants can be damaged by frost heaving from time to time. Eventually clumps of thyme will die out at the centre. When this occurs divide them, saving the outer living portions to replant and discarding the dead, woody, inner portion. Thyme can also be propagated from cuttings or grown from seed, which is best done indoors since it requires a temperature of about 70 F to germinate.
Snip aromatic thyme leaves for culinary purposes in small amounts regularly throughout the growing season, or harvest the entire plant all at once, leaving behind about 7.5 cm for continued growth. Although a second flush of foliage will occur after a hard shearing it is not recommended for harvest as this will likely compromise the plant's winter hardiness, especially here in Calgary where winters can be severe. Sprigs of thyme may be bunched together and hung to dry, or the leaves may be stripped from the stems and placed on a screen for drying. Thyme leaves also freeze very well in air-tight containers or plastic bags.

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