The Uncommon Thyme: Thymus Vulgaris

Rexford Talbert shares the fruit of his 30 years of study in this exploration of thyme, it's varieties and it's history.

| April/May 1997

I've spent more than thirty years in the pursuit of thymes. How did I become so fascinated by tiny plants whose most extro­verted characteristic is their fragrance? These modest herbs have captured me with their extraordinary diversity of form, coloration, and fragrance and their complex chemistry. The diffi­culty of identifying the hundreds of forms in the genus Thymus and of traversing the morass of names that have been attached to them has presented a challenge that I’ve found irresistible. Thymes, more than any other plants I can think of, have rewarded me with beauty, utility, and intellectual pleasure.

So I’m addicted. I will spend my days in continued obsession with growing, using, and studying this group of herbs, searching out answers to the question “What thyme is it?”

The all-too-common view of Thymus as a single species or perhaps as two, an upright and a low-growing one, belies the complexity of a genus comprising several hundred species and maybe a thousand or more forms. Analysis of the essential oils of misidentified thyme plants has led to an accumulation of confusing data and further clouded the picture of their true relationships to one another.

To approach the vast subject of thyme, one must either attempt to address the hundreds of species—which would surely outstrip my stamina as a writer and your patience as a reader—or look for its character within one species. Although the second approach is like having to choose among children or name a favorite composer of music, I’ve opted here to look at a single species: common thyme (T. vulgaris). This is the form used most often in the kitchen and in the essential oil industry and one that has claimed a place throughout history.

About thymes

Fossil remains from the Tertiary period—more than 5 million years ago—show imprints of recognizable present-day thyme species. The word “thyme” in both ancient and modern times has been applied to any of various plants that have the combined flavor of thymol and carvacrol, two constituents of the essential oil. The Arabic word for thyme, za’tar, for example, designates not only a culinary mixture but also a number of different herbs, depending on where in the Eastern Mediterranean you encounter it.

A Greek root of the generic name Thymus denotes a rising cloud or vapor, which would seem appropriate for an herb that has been used as both a fumi­gant and incense. The Greek word ­thumon, “soul”, may also be a source of the word. The thymus gland, which lies behind the breastbone and plays a major role in the development of the immune system during childhood, was once thought to house the human soul.

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