Thyme

Thyme is one of the most common herbs used for seasoning today, but it also has a history of symbolic, religious, and medicinal use. Read on to learn more about thyme's versatility in the kitchen, medicine cabinet, and more.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Thyme, common thyme, English thyme, garden thyme
  • Scientific nameThymus vulgaris
  • Plant typeShrub
  • Native regionNorth Africa/Middle East, Southern Europe
  • Main producer(s)Spain
  • Main Economic UseCulinary
Thyme

As a staple herb of Mediterranean cuisine, thyme has long been a commonplace seasoning for home cooks and veteran chefs alike. Its long-enjoyed and widespread popularity, however, is due to more than just its pleasing flavor: the herb also boasts major medicinal value, improving general well-being since ancient times. Historians have dated thyme back approximately 5,000 years to the Fertile Crescent region, where Sumerians first cultivated it for human use. It is thought that the herb's medicinal powers were discovered equally early on. Later introduction to Western civilization spawned its modern name, which comes from the Greek word thumos, meaning "spiritedness."

Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionAntimicrobial, Antispasmodic
  • Key constituentsThymol
  • Ways to useCapsules, Hot infusions/tisanes, Liquid extracts, Food, Freshly ground
  • Medicinal rating(2) Minorly useful plant
  • Safety rankingSafe

Health Benefits of Thyme

Thyme is traditionally used for:

  • Disinfecting wounds and scrapes. Thyme is an antiseptic, antimicrobial, and antifungal, making it an ideal disinfectant.

  • Preventing asthma attacks. Mild antispasmatic properties are helpful for preventing muscle spasms that are part of asthma attacks.

  • Relieving upper respiratory symptoms. This is due to the same mechanism that helps asthma attacks.

  • Treating fungal overgrowth. Antifungal properties mean that thyme can help treat fungal infections and growths.

How It Works

Thyme contains 20 - 54% thymol, which is regarded as the main active ingredient. The dried leaves is also rich in vitamins K (phylloquinone) and E (as α-tocopherol), while the leaves and stem are very rich in antioxidants and flavonoids. The essential oil, however, is known to contain more than 40 different volatile compounds, including thujene, camphor, geraniol, linalool, and α-terpineol.

Thymol is best known for containing antimicrobial properties, although it is also antiseptic and antifungal. It also possesses mild antispasmodic properties, which are particularly effective on the respiratory system and on muscle tissue. Its antioxidant properties may carry anti-aging effects, although this is still regarded as controversial among some researchers.

THYMOL IS BEST KNOWN FOR HAVING ANTIMICROBIAL PROPERTIES.

Antispasmodic properties are also present in guelder rose and oregano, whereas basil and Oregon grape can provide similar antimicrobial benefits.

Thyme Side Effects

Thyme is considered generally safe when consumed in culinary amounts. However, it can trigger allergic reactions in those who are sensitive to other herbs of the Lamiaceae family. The topical use of thyme essential oil may cause dermatitis.

The internal use of thymol, an active compound of thyme present in all medicinal preparations of the herb, can cause abdominal pain when taken in therapeutic doses (0.3 – 1 g).

When medicinal forms of thyme are taken in excess, the herb can alter the menstrual cycle.

Thyme Cautions

In medicinal forms, thyme may elevate blood pressure and counteract the effects of antihypertensive drugs.

The medicinal use of thyme is not recommended during pregnancy and breastfeeding, since further research is necessary to investigate the effects of the herb during these stages. A health care professional should be consulted before start taking any herbal supplements.

How to Consume Thyme

Quick Facts (How to Consume)
  • Edible partsLeaves
  • Edible usesFlavoring

The most common use of thyme is certainly as seasoning herb in a variety of culinary recipes. However, it can also be found or prepared in supplemental forms, which concentrate its healing properties and are more appropriate for medicinal use. 

Remedies

Main preparations: capsules, liquid extract, essential oil, tea

As thyme is common to find and easy to use in its natural state, little research has gone into creating thyme supplements. There are, however, some products available to fill this need for people looking to reap the herb's medicinal benefits without any culinary guesswork. Most often, they come as a liquid extract, essential oil, or in capsule form, although the latter is often combined with other herbs, namely fenugreek, to enhance its strength or complement its effects. Most prefer to boil the dried leaves of thyme into a tea or infusion, following an old Armenian custom.

Food

Main preparations: Fresh, dried, ground

Historically, thyme has been used as a culinary ingredient in both Mediterranean and Arabic dishes, but Western cuisine has embraced it to the point that it is now one of the easiest herbs to find in any home, along with black pepper and basil. The herb is frequently used in combination with others - most notably, rosemary - to emphasize different flavors depending on the meal.

Fresh thyme is frequently used as a garnish on larger dishes, and although it is edible by itself, few prefer to eat the herb as a complement rather than alone because the leaves produce a slightly bitter taste.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buySupermarkets, Farmers' markets, Specialized health stores, Online herb stores

Fresh and Dry Thyme

Fresh thyme is a common sight during  spring and summer, when it can be found in local farmers' markets.

Thyme seedlings and seeds can be found at many local nurseries and garden stores, as well as through online retailers.

Dried thyme leaves, considered a cooking essential by many, can be found in grocery stores and supermarkets year-round.

Thyme is usually sold in a bunch and should be used relatively soon after purchase, as fresh herbs have a significantly shorter shelf life.

Thyme Supplements

Due to their relative rarity, the best place to find thyme supplements is online, where reputable retailers can supply consumers directly. Pure supplements overwhelmingly appear in oil form, but gel liquid-filled capsules are also available, especially in combination with other herbs. Specialized health stores may also carry these products, though they are less common than other remedies.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cycleAnnual
  • Harvested partsLeaves
  • Light requirementsFull sun
  • SoilLoamy sand
  • Soil pH6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic)
  • Growing habitatTemperate climates
  • Potential insect pestsMites
  • Potential diseasesRoot rot

A low-maintenance evergreen shrub, thyme is a rustic plant that can adapt to various conditions.

Growing Guidelines

  • It can survive temperatures as low as freezing, but ideally it prefers a range from 60 - 70°F (16 - 21°C), in keeping with the temperate of its native climates.

  • Interestingly, too many nutrients may cause overgrowth, so a light, sandy soil with a good drainage is better for thyme to thrive.

  • Regular pruning is necessary to prevent the stems from becoming woody and spindly, especially in warmer climates.

  • The herb requires ample sunlight - at least six hours daily.

  • Seeds take approximately 16 - 28 days to germinate, though it is more common to propagate the plant from clipped stems.

  • It can also be grown indoors near a window that receives sufficient sunlight.

More detailed information about growing thyme can be found in the herb garden section.

Additional Information

Quick Facts (Additional Information)
  • Other usesDisinfectant, Perfume

Plant Biology

Thyme is an evergreen bush that covers more ground than it stands tall, reaching up to 16 inches (40 cm) in width but just 12 inches (30 cm) in height. Its pink or purple flowers bloom in early summer, and its gray-green leaves emit its trademark smell.

  • Classification

    Thyme belongs to the Thymus genus and the Lamiaceae botanical group, also known as the mint family, which includes many aromatic herbs used in cooking today, such as basil, peppermint, rosemary, sage, marjoram, oregano, and lavender.

  • Varieties and Subspecies of Thyme

    Thymus vulgaris is divided into two subspecies: aestivalis and vulgaris. Several cultivars have also been developed, such as 'Silver Queen' and 'Argenteus'.

    Other species in the Thymus genus also use the common name of "thyme." Lemon thyme (T. citriodorus) and caraway thyme (T. herba-barona) are often used as seasonings for food, while wild thyme (T. praecox) and woolly thyme (T. pseudolanuginosus) are primarily ornamental plants. Common thyme (T. vulgaris) is the most abundant of them all, as it is employed to both culinary and medicinal ends. Those who foster herb gardens for personal use generally prefer this species to others.

Historical Information

The earliest uses of thyme have been subject to debate, but it is known that ancient Egypt relied heavily on the herb for embalming the dead before mummification. Ancient Greek beliefs cited it as a source of courage and chose to scent temples and baths with its aroma. Later still, Christianity endorsed the plant as present in the manger at the birth of Jesus, sustaining its popularity throughout the Middle Ages and around the world as the religion's importance grew.

Economic Data

Aromatic spices form a significant part of the exportation industry worldwide, estimated in 2012 at a value of $1.6 million USD worldwide. Particularly in southern European countries, thyme contributes greatly to that end. Spain leads the way in its production, generating 90% of the world's supply of its essential oil, though France, Italy, and Bulgaria also benefit from the industry. Fresh leaves and stems are in high demand for culinary purposes, but the distilled oil made from these parts has proved more economically fruitful.

Other Uses

Thyme makes a great ground cover in any garden. Because of its attractive flowers, and agreeable aroma this aromatic herb has become a favorite for ornamental gardening all over the world.

Because of its antimicrobial action, the essential oil from thyme leaves is also employed as an antiseptic ingredient in mouthwashes, and it is the active ingredient in some all-natural, alcohol-free hand sanitizers.

Thyme is also widely used in the perfume and cosmetic industry, where its fragrance and antiseptic properties are employed in the fabrication of perfume, soap, and many other personal care products.

Additionally, thyme essential oil serves as a natural mold remover, which is an interesting household use for the herb.

Bibliography

  • Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, p. 143
  • Medicinal Plants of the World, pp. 323, 362-4
  • USDA Nutrient Database, Basic Report 02042: Spices, thyme, dried
  • Germplasm Resources Information, Taxon: Thymus vulgaris L.
  • Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals, p. 608
  • American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook, p. 867
  • The Vegetable Gardener's Bible, p. 333
  • Letters in Applied Microbiology, Antifungal activity of thyme (Thymus vulgaris L.) essential oil and thymol against moulds from damp dwellings, 2007
  • Purdue University, Thyme
  • University of California, Good Life Garden – Thyme