A perennial herb, it has attractive lavender flowers and aromatic leaves. Plant in full sun or partial shade; performs best in well-drained soil with moderate nutrients. Soil which is too rich will cause the plant to lose its compact shape.
It is known as “mother thyme” because of its traditional use for women’s disorders.
Thyme’s fragrance has inspired poets from Virgil to Kipling; and it is particularly strong on the warm, sunny hillsides of the Mediterranean.
To the Greeks, thyme denoted elegance; and, after bathing, they would include the oil in their massage.
Its botanical designation may have been derived from the Greek word thymon, meaning “courage” as many of their traditions relate to this virtue.
Wild thyme received its botanical name from the plant’s serpentlike appearance. Pliny recommended it as an antidote for snakebites and other poisonous creatures and for headaches. The Romans burned the plant in a belief that the fumes would repel scorpions.
Roman soldiers bathed in thyme waters to give themselves vigor.
During the Middle Ages, European ladies embroidered a sprig of thyme on tokens for their knights-errant.
A soup recipe from 1663 recorded the use of the herb, as well as in a beer to overcome shyness.
Scottish highlanders drank tea made from wild thyme for strength and courage and to prevent nightmares.
Its powerful antiseptic and preservative qualities were well-known to the Egyptians, who used it for embalming. It was also used to preserve anatomical and herbarium specimens and to protect paper from mold.
Sprigs were included in judges’ posies and clasped by nobility to protect themselves from disease and odour.
Thyme is the first herb listed in the Holy Herb Charm recited by those with herbal cunning during the Middle Ages, and it is a feature in a recipe from 1600 that “enabled one to see the Fairies”.
The English herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), praised thyme as a strengthener of the lungs and prescribed it for children who had whooping cough. He also used it for internal bleeding and vomiting.
The 18th century Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus, used the plant to treat headaches and hangovers.
In an Aztec Herbal of 1552, a plant identified as thyme was included in an elaborate remedy for nursing mothers whose breasts failed to produce a necessary supply of milk.
By the 18th century, thyme’s antiseptic properties were known; and its oil, thymol, was extracted and made available.
It was widely used as an antiseptic during WWI; but, when shortages of thymol developed, it was gradually replaced by other antiseptics. Thymol remains a key ingredient in the mouthwash, Listerine.
In the late 19th century, thyme was used as a disinfectant in sickrooms and to speed the recovery of patients.