I will admit without reservation that thyme is my favorite herb, and there is possibly too much to say about thyme. It may not grow the tender, voluptuous, comparatively huge leaves of basil, or be the three-foot high and wide, prolific producer that oregano is, but thyme leads in my garden. Thyme is tough, slow growing, and wise. I use its strong flavor delicately and sparingly. Thyme somehow manages to teach me something new about growing plants almost every season. Last year, I might have over harvested it, so this year, I gave it lots of room and pretty much left it alone. It rewarded me by growing, and blooming, growing again, and blooming again. It kept growing and it even bloomed again. Out in the garden, now covered in an early snowfall, the little blooms, which were tiny purple tubular flowers that remind me of small musical instruments, have turned brown. The new growth is vibrant grey-green in contrast and twice as high as the small plants were earlier in the spring.

In its natural setting, thyme and lavender cover hillsides in hot dry areas overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on low-nutrient soils, soaking up the sun’s heat and creating their wonderful scents. How it goes from living there naturally, to adapting to the cold, wet conditions in my mountain garden is impressive. I do keep it in hotter areas of the garden, south facing, put extra sand around it and try to not let it get too much water. As this is the setting for many herbs, it works well keeping them together so it is neighbored by free-seeding dill and summer savory, parsley, a large perennial lemon balm, and this year, an experimental rare heat-loving coriander.

It seems to me that thyme flies under the radar in the sphere of medicinal herbs, often being relegated to the kitchen for use in poultry seasoning, turkey stuffing during holidays, and when we are lucky, its mixed in a bouquet garni when making broths for soups. All great uses, I assure you. The key with cooking with this herb, in my opinion, is less is more with this tiny, powerful, fragrant herb. It pairs well with so many foods. As we are on a journey of exploring more vegetarian and vegan foods, it is an excellent addition with many grains, legumes, cheeses, and eggs as well as much of our traditional diet which also included meat and poultry. Historically, its use has kept many people of many cultures safe from foodborne illnesses as its antimicrobial activity would have kept foods from spoiling when we did not have refrigeration to rely on.

The medicinal properties of thyme

It is so much more than a culinary herb. Going toe to toe with some of the more famed medicinal herbs, thyme often comes out on top in scientific studies. It has powerful antifungal properties[1], which not only is important for medicinal use, but also can be used in air purifying with its ability to kill airborne molds and fungi. This trait, along with its other antimicrobial constituents, makes it important for fighting sore throats, cough, and respiratory tract infections[2].

There are about 30 active compounds present in thyme oil. An interesting and important one being thymol, and this compound in particular exhibits antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-carcinogenesis, anti-inflammatory, and antispasmodic activities[3]. Quite the mouthful for this little, woody, long-lived perennial. Its uses are being researched to help in areas of respiratory illnesses, heart conditions and even cancer prevention.

Before we relied heavily on antibiotics, use of herbal medicines kept us healthier than we might have been. Now, with antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria puzzling infectious disease specialists around the world, research on the effectiveness of herbal medicines is on the rise. The antimicrobial activity of thyme essential oil strongly inhibited growth against 120 strains of bacteria[4]. This included clinical multidrug resistant strains of Staphylococcus, Enterococcus, Escherichia, and Pseudomonas genus.

These are some of the reasons why I am a big cheerleader of the little herb. Available in an incredible array of varieties, the one that has piqued the interest of researchers is common thyme, also known as culinary thyme, Thymus vulgaris because it is highest in the active compounds.

Growing thyme

Thyme herb contained in paper cups

When it comes to choosing the kinds of thyme you may want to grow, there are multitudes of choices. There are tiny thymes that grow in cracks and crevices of paving stones so that when you walk on them the aromatic scents of the tiny, crushed leaves flavor your movements. Some thymes grow in large colony-forming carpets and some grow almost undetectable, creeping along the ground, under taller plants. Can you imagine the landscape covered in all these delicious, decadent plants? Some favorites for these unique garden attributes are elfin thyme, woolly thyme, and mother of thyme. For its beauty and culinary attributes, lemon thyme is preferred by many. I grow it also and find it is not quite as hardy as the culinary thyme growing right beside it.

Cooking, harvesting and storing thyme

I find it interesting that when we cook with some herbs, like basil, we use lots of it, and it becomes the centerpiece of the dish as in basil pesto. Similarly, oregano is the identifiable trait when it is used in pizza or Greek salad. Both are prolific and can be harvested in large quantities. Thyme, on the other hand, is powerful, and a little goes a long way. It complements the other ingredients in a dish or broth. It can be added earlier in the cooking process to extract its unique, complicated flavors. This is exactly how it grows and exactly how it is harvested. It takes a bit of time and patience to harvest thyme. It grows slowly and the leaves are tiny. I might fill a couple of jars or freezer bags each with oregano, basil, dill, parsley for use throughout the winter. On the other hand, I’ll have just one small jar of precious thyme. Where I might shovel spoonfuls of dill or parsley into a soup just before serving to add brightness and color, I’ll sprinkle just a bit of thyme into an egg dish, or into a marinade.

It is a slow, patient herb that can improve our health, our food, and our gardens. Don’t we all need a little more thyme in our lives?