Thyme, an officinal plant with a history dating back to ancient times, is also commonly known as herb or sermollo. It has always been appreciated not only for its intense and pleasant aroma but also for its healing properties. Its medicinal properties are indeed multiple, and there are several ways in which it can be used. To reproduce this plant on our terrace or in our garden, some important precautions are required.
Its cultivation goes well alongside other medicinal plants like rosemary, oregano, sage, peppermint, and melissa.
But let’s take it step by step and start with the botanical characteristics of this shrub.
Botanical characteristics of thyme
Thyme, scientifically known as Thymus vulgaris, is a perennial medicinal plant belonging to the botanical family Lamiaceae (or Labiatae). It is a small evergreen shrub with numerous thin and branched stems that tend to lignify after 4-5 years of life. The maximum height the plant reaches is about 40 cm. Thyme leaves are persistent, small-sized, opposite, lanceolate, with a very short petiole. They are about 6 to 8 mm long, have a gray-green color, and are highly aromatic. The flowering occurs between April and July and the plant bears numerous small flowers, white or pinkish-purple in color. The flowers appear in the axils of the leaves, gathered in small spikes at the terminal part of the branches.
The fruit is a tiny tetra-achene, oval and elongated in shape. About 5000-6000 seeds are contained in one gram of thyme.
These are the characteristics of the most widespread Thymus vulgaris.
However, there are dozens of species, all very similar at first glance, but with different details. This is because cultivating thyme exhibits a high polymorphism, meaning that within the same group, organisms with different characteristics appear.
Thyme is native to the Mediterranean regions and was widely used in our ancient civilizations. The name comes from the Greek verb thyo, meaning “to make sacrifices, strength, courage.” This plant was indeed used to be burned in offering rituals to the gods. Moreover, it has always been a symbol of courage and fortitude.
Thyme’s properties depend on its essential oil, which is also known as thymol. It is a phenolic monoterpene, one of those substances used in foods and perfumes precisely because of their scent and aroma. In addition to thymol, the plant also contains carvacrol, some oxides such as cineole, and thymol methyl esters, alcohols like borneol, geraniol, and linalool, esters such as bornyl acetate and linalyl acetate, and hydrocarbons like cymene and terpinene.
All these substances, present in the flowering tops and leaves, give thyme its antiseptic, balsamic, and expectorant properties.
This plant is particularly suitable for respiratory problems and serves as a natural remedy for colds, alleviating the symptoms of cough, acute and chronic bronchitis. Thanks to thymol, it is also useful against flatulence and intestinal parasites.
For external use, it is used for its deodorant properties. For example, thyme powder is an excellent natural remedy against foot odor. Moreover, this plant has always been used to produce toothpaste and mouthwash solutions.
It also has soothing and refreshing properties for various itchy conditions and is effective in relieving rheumatic pain.
The flowers are a valuable resource for our bee friends as they provide excellent nectar. In some areas of Sicily, with the variety thymus capitatus, an excellent thyme honey is produced. The color of this honey, which is monofloral, is light amber when it is liquid and tends to hazelnut when it crystallizes spontaneously.
It also gives a pungent note to all those light-colored high-mountain honeys.
Uses of thyme
Thyme essential oil, obtained through steam distillation, is easily available on the market. However, be cautious not to overuse it, as excessive doses (more than 20 drops per day) can cause mild intoxication, leading to gastrointestinal and respiratory disturbances.
Uses in the kitchen
At home, leaves and inflorescences, both fresh and dried, can be used to prepare herbal teas, infusions, and decoctions. Thyme infusion is prepared by infusing 5-10 grams of flowering tops in a cup of boiling water for 15 minutes.
While thyme decoction, for external use, is obtained by boiling 50-100 grams of leaves and inflorescences for 20 minutes. In this case, the pot should be covered with a lid. You can find thyme herbal tea in common herbal shops.
Naturally, thyme is used in cooking for its unmistakable aroma, which is very pleasant and has a warm, almost spicy taste. When rubbed between the hands while fresh, it has a lemony scent. It is ideal for accompanying soups, stews, and dishes from the Mediterranean tradition.
How to cultivate thyme
Soil and climate requirements, and sowing period
Cultivating thyme does not require a specific climate. The plant grows spontaneously on dry and sunny slopes, both in hills and mountains. It is a species that withstands frost well but fears overly humid winters. It loves dry and calcareous soils but can adapt well to clayey and particularly poor soils.
Its cultivation can start from seeds. The seeding can be done from early spring until May, using small pots or the classic seedbed technique.
It takes about 2 months from seeding to transplanting into the final location, either in the ground or in pots.
If the production is intense, the planting distance for transplantation should be about 20-25 cm within the row and 40-50 cm between rows. However, a few plants are enough to achieve significant results.
Propagation by cuttings
If you have mature plants, at least 3 years old, to start cultivating thyme, you can use the propagation by cuttings method. The technique is identical to what we have already seen and described for rosemary. The best periods to take the cuttings are early spring or late summer.
Cultivating thyme requires some care. First of all, the plant should be cleared of weeds, especially in the initial period when the plant is not well established. Periodic hoeing or applying natural mulching can be done to facilitate this.
Irrigation is especially necessary in the first year or for potted cultivations during particularly dry periods. However, with mulching, the soil will be more humid, leading to significant water savings.
Fertilization before transplanting should be limited to the distribution of domestic compost or vermicompost, thus relatively light. Avoid heavily nitrogenous fertilization, such as with manure; it is not necessary for this cultivar. As mentioned, thyme is a very rustic species. In fact, an excess of nitrogen, combined with water stagnation, can lead to the risk of developing fungal diseases, particularly two rusts, Aecidium thymi, and Puccinia menthae.
Before the winter period, at the end of autumn, it is advisable to hill up the base of the plant. This way, we will protect our thyme cultivation from frost and favor the formation of future spring shoots.
Harvesting and storage
Thyme should preferably be harvested during the flowering period, between late spring and early summer. The aerial parts, i.e., the flowering stems that include both flowers and leaves, are collected.
These can be used fresh, with the option of storing them in a perforated container in the refrigerator for about a week.
To dry thyme, tie the stems upside down and place them in a shady and well-ventilated place. Once dried, they should be stored in glass jars, in cool, dry places, and away from light. In this way, the plant’s properties will remain unaltered for at least six months.
- Molecules – “Thymol and Thyme Essential Oil-New Insights into Selected Therapeutic Applications.” – Thymol, a compound found in thyme species, is explored for its therapeutic applications. The article reviews the chemistry and potential biological activities of thyme essential oil.
- Int J Mol Sci – “Anti-Inflammatory and Antimicrobial Properties of Thyme Oil and Its Main Constituents.” – This review focuses on thyme oil, derived from various Thymus plants, and its therapeutic properties. It highlights the differences in oils extracted from different thyme plants.
- Phytother Res – “Thymol, thyme, and other plant sources: Health and potential uses.” – This review discusses thymol, a major constituent of thyme essential oil, and its wide range of functional possibilities, including its therapeutic properties.
- Curr Med Chem – “Antibacterial and antifungal properties of essential oils.” – This article reviews the antimicrobial properties of essential oils, including thyme, and their constituents against bacteria and fungi.
- Scielo – “Antibacterial and Antifungal Activities of Spices.” – This review highlights the antibacterial and antifungal activities of spices, including thyme, and the need for new antimicrobial agents.
- J Med Life – “Thymus vulgaris essential oil: chemical composition and antimicrobial activity.” – This study explores the chemical composition and antimicrobial properties of Thymus vulgaris cultivated in Romania, focusing on its essential oil.