Thymus serpyllum, a plant belonging to the Lamiaceae (Labiatae) family. Due to its properties, this plant can be categorized among aromatic and medicinal herbs. It grows wild and is highly resilient, but it can also be easily cultivated in gardens using proper organic techniques, much like common thyme (Thymus vulgaris). This plant is also known as wild thyme, Breckland thyme, Breckland wild thyme, creeping thyme, or elfin thyme.
In this article, we will explore its botanical characteristics, the correct practices for cultivating it healthily, its properties, and finally, its uses.
Description of Wild Thyme
The wild thyme plant resembles a small shrub with slender vertical roots. Its main stems are partially creeping along the ground, emitting adventitious roots at each node from which vertical or semi-ascending stems, up to 20 cm high, originate. Overall, the plant develops into a dense and branched bush, forming a veritable carpet under ideal conditions. The stems have a square cross-section and are abundantly pubescent, with a reddish surface. Therefore, it is a particularly attractive plant from an ornamental perspective.
Leaves of Wild Thyme
The leaves of creeping thyme are opposite, distant on fertile branches, and closer together on sterile ones. They range from linear to oval and sub-rounded, but they are always somewhat spatulate, meaning they have their maximum width toward the rounded apex. At the base, they taper into a short petiole, often covered with long hairs. The surface of the leaves is dotted with glands containing the valuable essential oil of thymol.
Flowers and Fruits of Wild Thyme
The flowers of wild thyme are grouped in pseudo-verticils at the tips of the stems. The calyx is tubular, cylindrical-campanulate, and ends in two lips. The upper lip points upwards and is divided into 3 small lobes. The lower lip consists of two thin curved appendices. The corolla is also tubular and bilabiate, with the upper lip being entire and the lower lip divided into 3 oval lobes. The color of creeping thyme flowers is usually pink or purplish, unlike common thyme, where the flowers are whitish. Flowering occurs in spring and summer, from May to August, depending on the climatic region, and is both persistent and intensely fragrant. The fruit consists of 4 ovoid achenes of brown color, located at the base of the persistent calyx.
Wild Thyme Honey
The flowering of wild thyme is greatly appreciated by bees and other pollinating insects due to the presence of pollen and nectar in the flowers. In some parts of Italy, beekeepers manage to produce excellent monofloral honey (which you can find here for a taste).
Cultivating Wild Thyme
Wild thyme is an easy-to-cultivate plant, as it is highly robust. It grows spontaneously from the coastal to alpine regions, so it is not limited by climate. It strongly prefers sunny positions and well-drained soils that are not particularly rich in organic matter. In nature, it is found on calcareous and arid soils, indicating its hardiness. Being a perennial plant, it is perfect for cultivation at the edges of the vegetable garden, as an ornamental in the garden, in a flowerbed with other aromatic plants such as rosemary or sage.
Starting to cultivate wild thyme is simple and can be done in various ways, including seeding, cuttings, dividing clumps, and transplanting potted seedlings.
Seeding Wild Thyme
Seeding wild thyme is done at the beginning of spring when temperatures are consistently above 10-15°C. Seeds are readily available in gardening stores. Sowing is done in a seedbed or in small pots with a diameter of 10 cm, using a mixture of universal soil (70%) mixed with sand (30%). Until germination, the soil-sand mix should be kept consistently moist but not waterlogged. Afterward, the plant is transferred to a 14 cm diameter pot, where it will grow until the next autumn or spring.
Cuttings of wild thyme can be done in spring before flowering or at the end of summer after flowering. Simply take portions of slightly lignified stem from the vegetative tips. To encourage the formation of adventitious roots, the cutting can be soaked in water for a few days, and once the first roots appear, it can be transplanted into a small pot with the same soil mixture used for seeding. In this case as well, the final transplant should be done in the following autumn or spring when the plants have established well.
Dividing clumps of wild thyme is done in early spring. This technique is useful when potted plants need to be transferred to a larger container. By dividing the clump, a portion of the plant with its roots is separated and transferred to another pot or directly into the ground.
The best times to plant wild thyme in the ground are spring and late summer. To do this, dig a hole slightly larger than the pot size. It’s not necessary to add heavy fertilizers; a bit of compost or worm humus is sufficient to amend the soil. Keep in mind that a Breckland thyme plant will develop vigorously over time and occupy space, so when transplanting, leave at least 50 cm of space between each plant.
There are few cultural care tasks to dedicate to wild thyme. In the initial period after planting, it’s essential to provide irrigation if there are no natural precipitation events. Very little water is needed, and waterlogging can create significant problems. Before the plant has developed a lush cover, it’s advisable to periodically weed where there are too many weeds.
Harvesting Wild Thyme
The flowering tops of wild thyme are harvested by cutting the stems. The basal parts, which have already lignified, should be avoided. The collected sprigs are tied into bundles and dried in the shade in a well-ventilated place. They can be stored in paper bags or glass jars.
Properties of Wild Thyme
Wild thyme possesses not only aromatic but also therapeutic properties. Its main constituents include essential oil (rich in thymol, carvacrol, and linalool), bitter substances, and tannins. It is particularly appreciated for its delicate aroma, which can be used in the kitchen to flavor meat and fish dishes. Its beneficial properties include being eupeptic, carminative, antispasmodic, balsamic, expectorant, anti-tussive, mucolytic, sedative for whooping cough and asthma attacks. It also has antioxidant, antimicrobial, antitumor, and cytotoxic activities. For external use, it is an excellent skin cleanser and disinfectant.
Domestic Preparations with Wild Thyme
The best way to harness the beneficial properties of wild thyme is by preparing an infusion with dried flowering tops. For internal use as a calming agent for respiratory ailments, 2 g of dried substance are used in 100 ml of water, to be consumed in 2-3 small cups per day, sweetened with honey. For external use in soothing small sores or wounds, the infusion is prepared with 5 g of wild thyme in 100 ml of water, used for compresses or washes on the affected areas. This dosage is also suitable for gargling and mouthwash for disinfection. Various specialized products based on wild thyme can be found in stores, including essential oil, tinctures, and herbal teas.