Thyme, the Herb of Courage

Wild thyme in a rock garden.

Thyme is a delicate herb that can be used both medicinally and with many foods, including egg, bean, and vegetable dishes. It has been said that when in doubt, use thyme. This herb is easy to grow in the home garden and widely available in supermarkets. With a long and colorful history, this wonderfully aromatic herb is an essential ingredient in most every kitchen.

History of Thyme

Thyme derives its name from the Greek "Thymus," meaning courage. A bed of thyme was thought to be a home for fairies, and a patch was often set aside for them. Thyme was burned inside homes to drive off stinging insects. It has been a symbol for several societies. The Greek used the symbol of thyme to represent style and elegance. In the Middle Ages, it stood for chivalry. In France, it symbolized the Republican spirit.

The Romans recognized its value, and used it as a digestive aid, a cough remedy and for intestinal worms. Charlemagne, king of the Franks, ordered the plant to be grown in his imperial palaces. In medieval times, knights embroidered the herb on their tunics, denoting courage. By the Middle Ages, thyme was recognized not only as an antiseptic, but for its ability to preserve meats.

Highland Scots made a drink from thyme to summon courage. Wild thyme is the symbol of the Drummond clan.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Susan Patterson adds, "The first colonists brought thyme, which originated in the Mediterranean region, to America. It is grown extensively in the United States and Europe."

Medicinal Uses

Through the ages thyme has served a number of medicinal roles. It has been boiled in wine to make a digestive drink and used for diarrhea and menstrual cramps.

TIP: Suasan notes, "Used in aromatherapy, thyme elevates the mood and relieve stress."

Herbalists have prescribed thyme for congested lungs and shortness of breath. It is a good antiseptic, and the essential oil can be used to clean out cuts. A popular use of thyme is in mouthwash and toothpaste.

TIP: Susan says, "Thyme has potent antifungal properties and has been used to treat athletes foot."


Care should be taken when using the essential oil, which contains thymol. In pure form, it can cause dizziness, diarrhea, headache and nausea. It can have a depressing effect on the heart and can over-stimulate the thyroid gland. Although once used as a vermifuge to cure hookworms, the dosage required to do so could be fatal. If using the fresh leaves of thyme for a poultice, be careful in its use if you have sensitive skin.

Culinary Uses

The Frank King Charlemagne recognized thyme for not only its medicinal benefits, but also for the fact that it worked well to preserve meats. Thyme has a "green" taste with an aftertaste of cloves. It is prized by the French, where it ranks as one of the "fines herbes." Leaves and sprigs are used in green salads, and bouquet garni. It is used heavily in Cajun, Creole and French cuisines.

Thyme complements beef, fish, poultry and poultry stuffing, lamb, sausages, soups and stews. It is used in herbed butters and herbed mayonnaise. Thyme is an ingredient in many flavored vinegars. It complements many vegetables, including tomatoes, onions, eggplant, mushrooms and green beans. It works well as a flavoring in eggs and cheeses. It combines well with garlic, lemon, basil and oregano.

If you are looking for a different taste, be aware that thyme has many different varieties that mirror other herbs, such as lemon and nutmeg.

Growing Thyme

If you are a beginning gardener, start with the common thyme variety and work your way up to the more finicky species. Thyme is a perennial shrub that grows to a height of 1 foot. It is many-branched, with oblong, nearly stalkless leaves about 1/2 inch long. It flowers in June and July, with tiny lilac or pinkish flowers in clusters. It likes light, dry and well drained soil with a pH balance of 6.3. It prefers full sun for optimum growth, but does well in partial shade.

TIP: Susan advises, "Temperatures below 10 degrees F will kill thyme."

Thyme is best started indoors, because seeds will not germinate until the soil reaches a temperature of 70 degrees. When they reach a height of 4 inches, place in a sunny sheltered location, and then a week later plant in the garden. Thyme does well in poor soil, as do many herbs. It requires little care, outside of normal watering.

Tips for the Chef

Put thyme in brined olives for a unique taste. Use it in marinades, and as a seasoning for soups and stews. It makes a good garnish for salads.

Try growing thyme this season. Who knows, you might find fairies in your garden, and they will certainly have a lot of courage.