Three Great Must-haves for This Year’s Garden

Herbs to Know


| February/March 2005


CAT THYME
Teucrium marum
Hardy to Zone 9

More commonly seen in rock gardens than in herb gardens, cat thyme (Teucrium marum), might look like plain old, upright silver thyme at first glance, but your cat might think this fuzzy herb is a garden of earthly delight. Cat thyme belongs to the mint family (Labiatae), as does thyme. Cat thyme looks like a hairy, upright silver thyme, but actually it is in the germander genus, which consists of more than 300 species.

Native to the Balearic Islands of the western Mediterranean area and one island off the northwest coast of what is now Serbia, cat thyme has naturalized throughout Spain and southern Europe, where it is known under many names: marum, herba mari veri, herb mastich, and herbe aux chats. This last common name and its English equivalent, cat thyme, refers to its ability to attract cats, much like catnip (Nepeta cataria).

Cat thyme achieves its cat appeal through different chemical compounds than those in catnip. The crushed leaves emit a strong fragrance suggestive of mint and camphor. My own cat, Ember, disdains catnip but will aggressively seek out cat thyme. He typically chews the tips of the branches, but some cats will roll on the plant and can damage it severely because the plant is so twiggy and brittle. I frequently advise customers with cats to protect the plant with chicken wire or to place it in a hanging basket out of paw’s reach.



THE PLANT

Cat thyme is an evergreen perennial shrub with slender stems that are covered with small, oval leaves about 3/8 inch long. A soft, white fuzz covers the upper side of the leaf; the underside has a duller, gray-green pubescence, a combination that gives the impression of the plant being enveloped in a fine silvery mist. The lovely, deep carmine-pink flowers are densely packed on short 3- to 5-inch flower spikes. Blooming from July through September, the flowers open characteristically on one side of the plant only. (I have never had a plant produce seed. Propagation is from cuttings.)

This small mounding shrub typically grows from 8 to 18 inches tall, depending on the climate, and is wider than it is tall. In all but the mildest climates, cat thyme needs protection from winter cold; put it in a protected spot and mulch it heavily. At temperatures below about 20 degrees, cat thyme is susceptible to winter kill.






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