Befriending Tenacious Thyme

Intrepid and never timid, this aromatic plant is a good friend in the garden and the kitchen.

| August/September 2011

  • Lemon and English thymes are planted side-by-side.
    Photo by Saxon Holt
  • The scent of 'Lime' thyme is destroyed by cooking.
    Photo by Saxon Holt
  • Woolly thyme has hairy leaves.
    Photo by Saxon Holt
  • English thyme is great for cooking.
    Photo by Saxon Holt
  • Mounding thymes tend to be better fo cookin than creeping thymes, with their short, unwieldy shoots.
    Photo by Saxon Holt
  • Thymes, like this variegated silver variety, grow well in containers.
    Photo by Saxon Holt
  • 'Aureus' is a gold-leafed form of lemon thyme.
    Photo by Jerry Pavia
  • Woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) is a creeping thyme that makes a beautiful groundcover for hot, dry areas.
    Photo by Jerry Pavia
  • 'Silver Queen' is a variegated version of the citrus thymes.
    Photo by Susan A. Roth
  • Wild thyme's color is a distinctive pink.
    Photo by Susan A. Roth

A little plant grows over the rocky hills of the Mediterranean basin, filling the air with its savory scent and covering the ground with thick mats of tiny green leaves. The ancient Greeks called it thimari, meaning “courage.” Today, we call it thyme.

It’s easy to see why this tenacious plant impressed the Greeks. Some thymes are no more than an inch high but continue to spread outward until a hard surface bars their roots. Some make tidy mounds to a foot wide and a few inches high. They all have tiny flowers, tiny leaves and wiry stems. They look dainty. But if you have a hot, dry spot where nothing else will grow, you’ll be surprised by how tough thymes can be.  

Thyme-Infused Recipes

Roast Pork Loin with Lemon, Garlic and Thyme
Grilled Rib-Eye Steak with Red Wine and Thyme
Baked Tilapia with Thyme and Green Olives
Crab Chowder with Thyme
Berries with Warm Lemon Thyme Honey 
Pan-Fried Apples with Thyme 

Thymes are botanically confusing. Their tiny flowers and leaves make them a challenge to identify. Their tendency to seed around and revert makes cultivars highly unstable. Many in the trade are confused. So the best way to choose a thyme is to use your eyes and nose to find one that you like.

Thyme Varieties

It is simplest to consider thymes in two groups: creeping varieties (generally originating from Thymus praecox) and bushy varieties (originating from T. vulgaris). Creeping thymes tend to be primarily ornamental. Their leaves are edible, but their shoots are so short that they’re difficult to use. Their scents often dissipate during cooking, leaving no significant taste. They have a prostrate habit and form thick mats of wiry stems covered in tiny green leaves. Quick drainage, full sun and good air circulation are the keys to success with creeping thymes. They are suitable for groundcover in hot, dry areas.

T. praecox is the most common species of creeping thyme. It grows in a mat with foliage two to three inches high. Regular T. praecox has tiny rounded shiny leaves on wiry stems. Flowers are white and shades of pale pink. T. praecox Coccineus has deeper pink flowers. ‘Pink Chintz’ is an especially vigorous selection with clean foliage and brighter salmon-pink flowers. Extra-dwarf selections of creeping thyme are also popular. T. praecox ‘Minus’ is an older compact variety with tiny blue-gray leaves and a rather lumpy, spreading habit. As with all creeping thymes, it makes an excellent filler in between pavers. T. praecox ‘Elfin’ is even smaller. It grows into a mat of gray-green foliage so tight and low that it resembles lichen. ‘Elfin’ and ‘Minus’ are highly sensitive to wet conditions, so give them a quick-draining soil. At least six hours of direct sun are essential for thymes to thrive.

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