Whether you have enormous gardens or just a simple perennial bed, thyme is one of those plants you can’t do without. The thyme family has more than 400 different species, and as both a groundcover and an herb, it is one of the most versatile plants you can grow. Read on to learn all about this wonderful plant!
The Many Benefits of Thyme
Most people are familiar with thyme because it is a popular flavoring in a variety of European dishes. Thyme is delicious in Italian pasta sauces, and it complements the flavor of fish, pork, beef, lamb and cheese. However, chefs aren’t the only people that put thyme to good use.
In the landscape, thyme is a popular choice as a ground cover for dry areas where little else will grow. It also works well in early bulb beds, since thyme begins growing just as the first spring blooms start to die back.
Where this little plant really shines is as a companion plant. Thyme is a good choice to plant near beans, eggplants, cauliflower, strawberries and lettuce. It repels many of the pests that plague these plants – including cabbage worms, flea beetles, tomato hornworms and corn earworms – while attracting bees and other pollinators.
Thyme is also prized by the pharmaceutical industry for the chemical compound “thymol.” Thymol is found in many dental products because of its antibacterial properties. It is also an antispasmodic and expectorant. In fact, steeping one tablespoon of thyme in one cup of boiling water makes a simple home remedy that soothes coughs and sore throats.
Thyme is a woody perennial with purple, pink or white flowers that attract bees and butterflies. The thick mat of foliage comes in an endless number of colors, and it looks great in a rocky landscape. The largest varieties grow up to 18 inches tall. Medium varieties top out around six inches high, while miniature thyme plants rarely exceed two inches in height.
This plant is one of few that thrives on abuse. Thyme prefers poor, sandy soil, full sun to partial shade, and it doesn’t like much water. Before planting thyme in clay, mix compost into the soil to help it drain better. Thyme is prone to few issues but it can develop fungal diseases if it is kept too wet. Most varieties of thyme will also work well in containers, which is nice for those who would like to bring it inside for fresh flavor all year long.
Thyme is easy to start from both seed and cuttings. However, seedlings should be started in mid to late spring, as they will not be able to tolerate a freeze.
With hundreds of varieties to choose from, thyme can be found in both ornamental and culinary forms. The most popular choices for culinary use are English and French thyme varieties. “Silver Thyme” is a French variant noted for its trailing, silvery foliage.
Lemon thyme is another group of thymes that are known for they’re wonderful flavor and attractive variegated foliage. Popular lemon thyme choices include “Aureus,” which has leaves with golden edges, “Golden King,” which has leaves that are mostly gold, and “Silver Queen” which has leaves with light cream edging.
Creeping thyme doesn’t have much flavor, but it is a popular landscape choice for its low-growing habit and the hundreds of purple to mauve flowers that it produces. The most popular creeping thyme varieties include “Albus,” “Kew,” and “Doone Valley.”
Harvesting and Preservation
Thyme is best when harvested after a spell of hot, dry weather. These conditions spur the plant into producing more of the essential oil that provides thyme’s unique flavor and aroma. It should be harvested just before the flowers open, and up to half of the plant can be cut.
To dry thyme, simply tie it into a bundle and hang it up. Since it will take several days to dry, it’s a good idea to put a paper bag over the drying bundles to keep them free of dust. Although thyme has the most flavor when fresh, it will keep very well if properly stored in an airtight container.
Even if you’re not harvesting thyme to use in the kitchen, it’s a beautiful way to cover up ugly bare spots where nothing else will grow. Add in the medicinal and companion planting benefits, and it’s easy to see why this is one of the most popular garden plants available.