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It's About Thyme
by Lesley Reynolds
by Lesley Reynolds


Lesley Reynolds is a freelance garden writer who was born in England and emigrated to Regina as a child. Lesley has always loved plants and the natural environment and has gardened in Saskatchewan and Alberta for over 20 years, spending most of that time in Calgary. For the past seven years, Lesley has been working with her friend and writing partner Liesbeth Leatherbarrow and they have several best-selling gardening books to their credit.

In August 2001, Lesley moved with her family to Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. She is enjoying learning how to garden on the west coast and is busy planning a brand new garden.

July 4, 2004

If your experience with thyme has been limited to the dried herb in your spice cupboard then it's "thyme" to become acquainted with this fine perennial. Renowned for its captivating fragrance, tiny, delicate flowers, persistent green foliage, and pleasing mat-forming growth habit, thyme is a delightful groundcover for gardeners everywhere. It is pest-free, easy to grow, and much favoured by industrious bees. Thyme is also a herb of classical antiquity and medieval folklore, one of those fascinating "plants with a past" that we prairie gardeners love to grow to keep us in touch with simpler times.

The genus name, Thymus, may originate from the Greek word for courage, thymus, and there is plenty of lore in ancient and medieval history that supports the association of thyme with bravery. Other possible associations are the Greek words thumus for energy, thymain, for burning incense, and thymele for altar.

Thyme has antiseptic and preservative qualities and was used by the Sumerians for poultices, and by ancient Egyptians as an embalming herb. The Greeks regarded thyme as a symbol of grace and elegance, and anointed themselves with oil of thyme after bathing. The Romans strewed it on floors and burned it to deter venomous insects, while their soldiers bathed in thyme water to increase vigour. During the Middle Ages ladies presented their knights with tokens embroidered with a bee hovering over a sprig of thyme to denote courage, activity, and energy. Scottish highlanders drank tea brewed from wild thyme to impart strength and courage and to prevent nightmares. The medicinal properties of thyme were well known in Europe during the 15th to 17th centuries when it was used to battle plagues, and during World War I its essential oils were used as a battlefield antiseptic. But perhaps the most delightful tradition, and one that young prairie gardeners may wish to embrace, is the English practice of planting a patch of thyme as a home for fairies.

There are two main groups of thyme – common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and creeping thyme (T. serpyllum), also called mother-of-thyme. Both groups are from the Mediterranean area, where they inhabit dry, rocky soil. These low, aromatic perennials belong to the mint family, with common thyme having a somewhat shrubbier and more upright habit than creeping thyme. Both have small, semi-evergreen, almost oval, pointed leaves that grow from 0.5 cm to 2.0 cm in length. The dainty two-lipped, tubular flowers grow in short spikes that smother the plants in a fragrant blanket of pink, mauve, purple, or white in early to late summer.

Common thyme, also called garden thyme and English thyme, grows to about 15 cm tall, forming compact, bushy plants. While all thymes may be used for cooking, some are more flavourful than others, and common thyme is a preferred culinary type. Cultivars include the silver-leaved 'Argenteus', and 'Silver Posie', which has white-edged leaves.

Since its ground-hugging, evergreen leaves are usually covered by snow during the winter, creeping thyme tends to be more winter hardy and a better choice for prairie gardens than the more erect common thyme. Creeping thyme comes with a long list of common names, such as mother-of-thyme, mountain thyme, wild thyme, hillwort, and shepherd's thyme. Don't get too hung up on the botanical nomenclature of thyme: the taxonomy of this genus has been revised and various forms may be listed under several botanical names, including T. praecox, T. praecox subsp. arcticus, T. polytrichus, and T. pulegioides. To add to the confusion, many cultivars are of uncertain hybrid origin.

This profusion of thymes includes forms of T. serpyllum that vary in bloom color: album (white), coccineus (bright crimson), and roseus (pink). 'Aureus' is a golden creeping cultivar. For alpine troughs, choose 'Minor', a compact, creeping variety with dense foliage and pink flowers. Thymus doerfleri has hairy leaves, and purple-pink flowers; 'Bressingham' is a choice cultivar with gray-green leaves and bright pink flowers. Thymus 'Doone Valley', Doone Valley lemon thyme, is a gold-splashed thyme that seems to perform best if not allowed to bloom. Thymus x citriodorus 'Gold Edge', golden lemon thyme, has shiny green leaves edged in gold. Woolly thyme, T. pseudolanuginosus, spreads to form a soft carpet of tiny, fuzzy, grey leaves topped with pale pink flowers. It thrives in especially well-drained soil.

There are many exotically flavoured thymes available including lime, caraway, orange balsam, orange spice, lavender, coconut, mint, and nutmeg. Generally speaking, these thymes tend to be less hardy than others listed above, but are well worth a try in a sheltered sunny area with winter protection.

Thyme is ideal for edging flowerbeds, and for underplanting taller inhabitants of a border. Ambitious gardeners can try clipping shrubby thymes into a little hedge that weaves in and out of a knot garden design. Creeping thyme is also useful in a terraced garden, providing a tapestry of color that cascades over walls. Plant it in crevices between stepping stones and pavers, where it will quickly develop into a continuous ribbon of green crowned with a profusion of lilac, pink, or white blossoms.

Plant a fragrant blooming carpet of thyme around roses and old-fashioned perennials such as phlox, daylilies, peach-leaved bellflower (Campanula persicifolia), or 'Munstead' lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). In a rock garden, thyme pairs well with white maiden pinks (Dianthus deltoides), sedum, and creeping veronicas.

If no garden space is available, all varieties of thyme will grow happily in summer containers. Basil, rosemary, chives, parsley, and decorative varieties of sage are all fine container companions that are useful in the kitchen and also provide pleasing foliage colour and texture. Remember to transplant your container-planted thyme into the garden in the fall. While thyme can be moved indoors for the winter, it tends to drop its leaves in this dry, artificially heated environment.

Thyme requires full sun to encourage optimum flowering. It revels in relatively poor, but well-drained soil. Good drainage is essential; thyme will not thrive in boggy soil and may become susceptible to fungus and other stem and root diseases. Thyme increases slowly by means of delicate runners and can be tricky to transplant. Move plants no later than mid-summer, to enable them to re-establish their roots before the first hard freeze. Even established plants can be damaged by frost heaving from time to time. Winterkill can be a problem in dry Chinook zone winters where plants lack a good snow cover, therefore a layer of organic mulch, such as shredded leaves, is advisable to protect the evergreen leaves from desiccation in areas where snow is lacking. In the spring prune thyme back to new growth, while in summer the plants should be trimmed to remove faded flowers following blooming.

Eventually, clumps of thyme will die out at the centre. When this occurs, divide them, then replant the outer living portions and discard the dead, woody, inner portion. Thyme will develop roots along stems that come into contact with the soil and these rooted stem sections are easy to separate from the parent plant and replant elsewhere. Thyme may also be propagated from cuttings or grown from seed.

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