Garden thyme or thymus vulgaris has an amenable and hardy disposition. Part of the 3,500 strong Labiatae family, a gang of flowering shrubs which also includes basil, mint, rosemary, sage and oregano, it was introduced to the UK by the Romans. It flourishes best in dry, stony soil, but can be coaxed out of almost any patch of ground provided there is a bit of sun and drainage. In spring and summer it flowers; pink, white and purple blossoms spin in whorls at the end of the stem, attracting bees and butterflies.
Thyme’s medicinal powers are well known. In the 4th century BC, Hippocrates included it in his 400 remedies – good for easing post-feast indigestion, he claimed – and by the 17th century, it had been naturalised in England and was used as an antiseptic and an anti-inflammatory, good for gout and weak digestion, childbirth and hangovers. Later, in WWI, thymol oil was used as an emergency battlefield antiseptic and to this day we employ thyme as an appetite stimulant, an easer of bronchitis and in the alleviation of skin conditions.
The name is Greek, a derivative of either thumos meaning ‘to fumigate’, or thumus meaning ‘courage’. Either is appropriate – the Greeks and Romans burnt thyme in their temples and their homes, believing it to cleanse the air and inspire courage, and soldiers took thyme baths before battle to stiffen their resolve. Paranoid emperors loved thyme because the common belief held that eating it either before or during a meal would protect them from poison. The Romans believed it deterred melancholy – sprigs would be given to the gloomy.
While being employed as an insect repellent, thyme was also believed to entice and cultivate fairies – Shakespeare’s fairy queen Titania lived “on a bank where the wild thyme blows”. Its functions extend to the sublime – reportedly infusing the Virgin Mary’s bed of hay; the corporeal – treating chesty coughs; the soothing – beauty products; and the delicious – roast potatoes.
Shop the Collection
Explore the products related to this story