Learn how to grow, harvest and use thyme—a perfect addition to your garden and medicine cabinet.
Thyme is one of nature’s most versatile herbs. Not only is thyme a must-have in the kitchen, it has a wide range of therapeutic uses thanks to the potent antiseptic compound thymol, found in the plant’s leaves. Thyme is an effective and well-known remedy for coughs and sore throats, and research is also piling up about thyme’s antimicrobial, anticancer and other health benefits.
Thyme has been in use for thousands of years. It was a favorite herb among Roman emperors who believed that, added to bathwater, thyme could protect against poisons. Greeks and Romans burned thyme bunches to purify their homes and temples and to build courage in those who inhaled its smoke. Thyme was used in embalming bodies in ancient Egypt as it was believed to aid the dead’s passage into the next life. In Victorian England, patches of wild thyme were considered irrefutable evidence that fairies had danced the night away at the exact location where the herb was found.
The three main species of thyme include mother of thyme (Thymus praecox ssp. arcticus), which creeps along the ground or stone pathways; golden lemon thyme (T. ×citriodorus), which has a strong lemon fragrance; and common thyme (T. vulgaris), which is the primary type used for culinary and medicinal purposes. All species of thyme are perennial plants with tiny leaves and flowers that range from magenta to white. Thyme thrives in full sun with dry, gritty soil. You can plant seeds or start with seedlings in spring and fall. Adding lime to your soil helps give thyme the ideal conditions for growing. Add an organic slow-release fertilizer when planting thyme and again each spring for best results.
Thyme plants can also be grown indoors in a sunny window. It’s easy to grow, but each plant is generally small, so you will likely want to grow a couple. Although thyme is a perennial, in northern regions it is best to cover thyme plants with leaves or evergreen boughs in autumn to help them survive the winter.
Use thyme sprigs whole throughout summer or cut the sprig and pull off the leaves by sliding your thumb and forefinger down the sprig from tip to cut end. Once the plants start to flower, cut off the top half of the sprigs and hang bundles upside down in a dry spot indoors (don’t remove more than half of the plant). When the leaves are completely dry, pull them off stems and store them in a sealed jar for future use.
One of the most versatile herbs, thyme is delicious added to meat, poultry or fish as the dish is cooking. You can also add thyme to soups, beans, mushrooms and vegetable dishes. It’s a staple of European cooking and forms the backbone of the famed herb blend known as bouquet garni, used in French cooking to flavor soups, stocks and stews. Thyme works well with many other herbs, particularly rosemary, parsley, sage and oregano.
Eliminate Coughs: Thyme has been approved by the German government as a treatment for coughs, respiratory infections, bronchitis and whooping cough. Its flavonoids have been found to relax muscles in the trachea linked to coughing and inflammation. To make a cough-eliminating tea: Add 2 teaspoons of crushed fresh or dried thyme leaves to 1 cup of boiled water. Steep for 10 to 15 minutes, and strain.
Beat Fungal Diseases: As an increasing number of fungal conditions have become drug-resistant, new research about thyme’s antifungal activity couldn’t come at a better time. For example, thyme has shown effectiveness against Aspergillus spores—a common type of mold that can cause the lung condition aspergillosis in susceptible individuals. A study in the Brazilian Journal of Microbiology found that not only was thyme effective at inhibiting the growth of fungi, it also increased the potency of the drug fluconazole to kill the disease-causing fungi. Another study in the journal BMC Complementary & Alternative Medicine found thyme effective against drug-resistant strains of Candida fungi—the cause of yeast infections.
Soothe Back Spasms: According to James Duke, botanist and author of The Green Pharmacy, thyme’s natural essential oils effectively reduced his back spasms. One way to benefit from these oils is to soak in a hot bath with a handful of dried thyme in it.
Ease Headaches: Medical anthropologist John Heinerman, author of Heinerman’s Encyclopedia of Fruits, Vegetables and Herbs, recommends drinking thyme tea to treat headaches. He uses 1 teaspoon of dried thyme per cup of hot water. He also recommends soaking cloths in thyme tea to make a compress to ease aching muscles of the neck, back and shoulders in order to combat tension headaches.
Help Fight Cancer: New research in the journal BMC Research Notes found that thyme in combination with Middle Eastern oregano was effective at inhibiting human leukemia cells, suggesting that the herb may hold potential in the natural treatment of cancer.
Add fresh or dried thyme to the following:
• Salad dressings