Thyme – Gardening Tips from the Culinary View

Thyme – Gardening Tips from the Culinary View

as recommended by Michael Vidrine

I was a teenager in 1966 when Simon and Garfunkel released the wonderful song “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”.  The “Scarborough Fair” portion of the song is actually a traditional English folk song from the Middle Ages about a market and fair in Scarborough, Yorkshire with the refrain of the song being the four herbs “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.”  Some suggest the four herbs may have been ingredients of a love potion. Thyme was thought to assist in the search for true love and bring good luck and good feelings.  Although the love potion uses for thyme may be a bit tenuous, the herb certainly has a multitude of culinary and other uses.

There are over 300 species within the genus “Thymus” most of which are native to temperate regions around Europe, Asia and North Africa.  Thyme plants are also related to mints which include hundreds more species.  Despite the large numbers of different species in the thyme family, the most often used for culinary purposes is Thymus vulgarus (common/garden thyme) and Thymus citriodorus (lemon thyme).  

Garden thyme is a 6-to-12-inch perennial evergreen shrub with small, very aromatic grey-green leaves and woody stems.  The plants flower in late spring to early summer and are very attractive to many pollinators including honeybees.  Lemon thyme is similar but only half as tall and with a more pronounced citrus flavor. Garden thyme and its cousins are often grown as an attractive ground cover.  Thyme plants are easy to grow if they get full sun and have very well drained soil – wet feet will really be the death of them.  Depending on conditions, plants can be relatively short lived but are easily propagated from stem and root cuttings or from seeds.  Older plants tend to get gangly so growing a few new plants periodically keeps the herb garden more attractive.

Thyme has been used since antiquity for a variety of purposes including for embalming, as a relaxant and sleep aid, to bring courage, as an incense and deodorant, as an insect repellent, as a medicine and as a food and drink flavoring.  The herb is still used today for much the same things (not sure about the embalming though). 

The most abundant volatile compound in thyme is thymol which is an ingredient in several products today including mouthwashes, pesticides, antiseptics, mosquito repellents, cosmetics, and cough suppressants. It is even an authorized treatment for bee colonies to reduce mite infestations (quite important to me and my bees).

As a culinary herb, thyme can offset the need for some of the salt in a recipe which can be especially helpful for blood pressure control.  Thyme can be used fresh or dried – the fresh herb being more flavorful than the dried form. The fresh herb only lasts a week or so but can be frozen in ice cubes to last for months.  Recipes using thyme may call for just the leaves (like in herbes de Provence) or an entire stem (like a bouquet garni).  The applications for thyme in food and drinks are at least as diverse as it’s other uses.  Baked meats and roasted vegetables are great with thyme.  Soups and stews, especially those with beans, can use thyme as a primary herb flavoring.  Breads and even cakes can be enhanced with the addition of thyme.  Thyme also is wonderful with fresh summer vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers.  A caprese salad with home grown tomatoes and a bit of fresh thyme for color and flavor is quite nice.  The earthy, somewhat minty flavor of thyme makes a wonderful hot tisane, and the fresh herb goes well in many cold beverages especially those with a citrus base.

Try a thyme plant or two in your garden and add a bit of the herb to your favorite dish or drink.  I think you will like it and I know the honeybees will.

Michael Vidrine Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor

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