Friday, January 15, 2016

Thyme, Timian

Thymus vulgaris
Thymus vulgaris

Thyme is a half bush with square stalks, green leaves, dark violet, white or pink flowers. The herb has a very pleasant aroma which attracts honey bees.

Thyme is today a wellknown and popular spice herb all over the worl. The plant originated in the Mediterranean  regions and is known from time immemorial. It is an evergreen herb with culinary, medicinal and ornamental uses. The most common variety is Thymus vulgaris. Thyme is of the genus thymus of the mint family lamiaceae and a relative of oregano and it is one of the oldest spice herbs. It was already mentioned by the Sumerers 5000 BC. The Greek word thymus means power. The herb grows wild in all of southern Europe and is found up to a height of 1000 meter.

Ancient Egypt, Anubis attending embalming of mummy
Ancient Egyptians used thyme for embalming. The ancient Greeks used it in their baths and burnt it as incense in their temples, they believed it was a source of courage. The Greeks wore it on the breast and took a thyme bath before they went to war. Olympic masters were garlanded with thyme. The spread of thyme throughout Europe was thought to be due to the Romans, as they used it to purify their rooms and to "give an aromatic flavour to cheese and liqueurs".

Fairy, Midsummer Eve, E.R. Hughes 1908

In the European Middle Ages, the herb was placed beneath pillows to aid sleep and ward off nightmares. In the days of chivalry ladies would embroider a bee hovering over a sprig of thyme to present to their champions at the tournaments.  The association with magic and fairies was particularly noticeable during Shakespeare's time. In the Ashmolean museum in Oxford is a recipe dated 1600 that includes thyme, which will enable one to see the fairies. Medicinally thyme has been associated with the treatment of depressions. Thyme was also used as incense and placed on coffins during funerals , as it was supposed to assure passage into the next life.


In Denmark 
Thyme was a daily spice upon the king's dinner table in the summer 1541,  and it is mentioned in 1613 about some purchase of thyme seeds to the royal garden at Skanderborg Slot. In 1650 as a cut thyme-frame of garden beds; it had to be cut two days before New Moon. The thyme plant was known by both rich and poor in Denmark. Yearly was sowed and plant numerous plants - and people said that "it was really not necessary to tell everyone that they used thyme in the kitchen every day -  for everyone knew that it was one of the finest food herbs". 

In a market today

Gardeners from Funen sold in the 1700s seeds and plants of thyme at markets in Holstein and Jutland, and it was probably exported to Norway.  Thyme was called craddle straw like other strongly scenting herbs which could drive away bed fleas. In the Middle Ages it was often called Virgin Mary's Bedstraw  (Jomfru Maries sengehalm) like another herb, yellow bedstraw. Thyme was also called bee herb, the honey bees love thyme  In autum thyme was bound into garlands around hoops and hung to dry in the ceiling and later at the attic for use in the next winter.

At the market in Copenhagen was in 1967 sold 295.000 bundles of thyme.

Thymus vulgaris : common thyme, English thyme, summer thyme, winter thyme, French thyme or garden thyme is a commonly used culinary herb. It also has medical uses. Common thyme is a Mediterranean perennial which is best suited to well drained soils and full sun.
(There are about 100 varieties of thyme) 

Thymus serpyllum , Boeslum, Mols, photo gb
In Denmark are two species of wild growing thyme:
1) *Thymus serpyllum (DK: smalbladet timian)is low and creeping and a very branchy halfbush with red flowers in dense heads, it is common in dry sandy fields and hills, in hedges,wickets, in dunes, in heathers etc like its very alike 2) Thymus pulegioides (DK: bredbladet timian

 Thymus serpyllum: wild thyme, creeping thyme is an important nectar source plant for honeybees. All thyme species are nectar sources, but wild thyme covers large areas of droughty, rocky soils in southern Europe, both Greece and Malta are especially famous for wild thyme honey. The lowest growing of the widely used thyme is good for walkways  It is also an important caterpillar plant for large and common blue butterflies.

Other varieties:

Thymus pseudolanuginosus: wooly thyme is not a culinary herb, but is grown as a ground cover.

Thymus herba-barona: caraway thyme is used both as a culinary herb and a ground cover and has a very strong caraway scent due to the chemical cavone

Thymus citriodorus, wikimedia
Thymus citridiodorus  - various lemon thymes, orange thymes, lime thymes. Lemon thyme is a creeping wintergreen plant with a strong lemon taste. It has blue flowers in June- July - it is a fine and useful plant, both in the herbal garden and the rock garden. As a medicine plant it is used against whooping cough, diarrhea and stomach pain. It has wound-healing properties and is used in mouth water, in gum inflammation and as a cover on wounds and scratches. As a spice herb it is used instead of lemon balm, fx in fish dishes and salads. A little twig of lemon thyme in the tea takes a bitter taste and sweetens the tea and makes sugar unneccessary. The plant thrives well in a sunny place in the garden in sandy soil. Spring and summer the plant easily takes roots. It grows fast and it keeps green in normal winters, but much bare frost might take the green.

The name of the genus of fish thymallus, first given to the grayling (T. thymallus described in the 1758 edition of systema naturae by Swedish zoologist Carl Linneaeus) originates from the faint smell of the herb thyme, which emanates from the flesh.


Herb garden, Boller slot, photo: gb
Garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris)  is a relatively  hardy plant which can withstand to be trodden on. It is very suited to be plant among the tiles and stones, where it will spread as a thick and scenting carpet. The creeping growth of thyme makes it a fine ground covering plant in many sunny beds of the garden, where it can prevent outdrying of the soil and keep down the weeds. It is also good in the rock garden.

Thyme seeds keep their viability for about 3 years. Thyme can grow in the same place in the garden for about 3-4 years, it can be cut down in spring to prevent the plant from getting lanky and wooden-like, old plants can be divided and plant again. Thyme can also sow itself  and these small plants can be plant out in the garden.

Thyme is suitable for planting in pots and bowls at the terasse, and since it is very drought tolerant it can be plant on the sunny places in the garden slopes. In England it is a popular thing to plant several varieties of thyme together in a lawn. It will quickly become an entwined carpet with flowers, scent and attraction to the bees.

To harvest in high season July-August: cut the stalks off and bundle them, put in small brown paperbags after drying, keep in bags until use in kitchen, crumble the bouquets over a sieve which gives a fine and smooth spice  - and it is easier to remove the little branches.

All thymes can easily be propagated with herbaceous cuttings,  many varieties of thyme tend to get a course growth if they are not cut back in spring. It is best to plant thyme in a sunny place, but else the plant is not asking much as for the soil. If a garden has some big areas it is popular to arrange thyme lawns with stepping stones, which is commonly seen in the English country garden. Every four years it is best to replace the plant, take cuttings from the second year on for this purpose.

The young thyme plants are the most vigorous, it is good to renew the plant each second year. Thyme likes a sunny place and its aromatic substances gets heavyer in the sunshine. If the garden-soil is heavy, mix it with sand or grovel, winter-cover is also a good idea, hard winters can eliminate the thyme in the garden. In dry periods thyme must be watered in spite of its hardiness.

Thyme was cultivated in the gardens of Thorshavn, the Faroes in 1780. 


Thyme is sold both fresh and dried. While summer-seasonal, fresh greenhouse thyme is often available year round. The fresh form is more flavourful, but also less convenient; storage life is rarely more than a week. Although the fresh form only lasts a week or two under refrigeration, it can last many months if carefully frozen The plant can take deep freezes and are found growing wild on mountain highlands along the Italian Riviera, it is found from sea level up to 800 m.

Thyme retain its flavour on drying better than many other herbs.It is a common component of the bouquet garni and of herbes de Provence. The lovely aroma of thyme makes is very useful in the kitchen. The fresh leaves as a spice in meat, fish, poultry and in soups. Thyme gives a welltasting tea and is a good pickle spice fx for pickled beetroots, onions or in common pickles.The thyme flowers can be used as a decoration or mixed in a salad dressing, they have a sweet taste and are pretty as a decoration in every kind of dessert.

An old dish from  the Danish island Funen is called "sve". It is thyme and onion in sheep-blood, cooked  with oats to a thick porridge  

Thyme was added to sausage, cabbage and all slaughtering food  When the pig intestines were cleansed they lay until next use in water with a big bundle of thyme which removed eventual bad smell. 

Wild thyme is not worth using as a spice herb, but it was used as a spice in sausages and cabbage if people had no garden thyme. It was said that if a pig eat much thyme it would get a taste like wild boar.

Other Use
Thyme keeps colour and scent very well after drying and is good in a scent potpourri and to bring taste in a snaps

Folk Medicine/Medicine

Old pharmacy, Viborg Museum, photo gb
Thyme was used as a mild antiseptic herb for both outer and inner use, it was a good tea against insomnia, especially very hot and mixed with honey. Thyme was used in cough mixtures and in medicine for the digestive system , an oil from thyme was used to treat shingles.Thyme was also used against female diseases and  in chastity rituals.  Thyme was mixed into the bed straw against fever and dwindling sot  A decoction was used against whooping cough, croup and bronchitis. An oil essence and extraction of thyme was sold at the pharmacy as a cough medicine 

Thyme cooked together with other spice herbs and used as a cover on knots or bumps and bruises.  Thyme in very hot tea upon a sore tooth.  Oil from garden thyme added to mouth water against toothache. The Pharmacopoeia sold Thymus serpyllum and Thymus vulgaris in 1772.   At the Faroes the tea was used as a stomach strengthener and at Greenland the tea was drunk to heal manic insanity.

A tea of equal parts of thyme, peppermint, bay leaf  and camomile was used against fatigue.

The volative oil thymol, which gives the strong scent is very antibacterial and was in the past used to desinfect hospital tools.  In folk medicine it was used against menses-pain, diarrhea, coughs and
Old pharmacy jar, Viborg museum, photo gb
headache. It is still recommended up till present as a tea for a soar throat and hangovers. Thymol is extracted in the medicinal industry, it is used in mouth water, tooth paste and as a means against tooth ache, and as an ingredience in some desinfectants. The oil is a part of a medicine against whooping cough.

The old Physicians' Medicine:
old medicine bottes, Viborg museum, photo gb
Henrik Harpestræng ab 1300: thyme crushed with vinegar and rose oil in a balm against headache, a decoction was a part of food, so people did not get hurt by worms and other poisonous animals while they were sleeping in the field. Thyme was used as a cover on bites and poisonous stings. Poisonous animals flee from the smoke of burning thyme. 

Christiern Pedersen 1533
Thyme was part of a gout patch, and as a wine decoction against nausea,  the juice of thyme upon

haemorrhoids, crushed thyme mixed with salt was put upon fistulas and cancer. 

Henrik Smid 1546 
A decoction with thyme casts out slime of the kidneys and blatter and stops intestinal twisting,
he also uses thyme as an antidote in bites of posisonous animals. They  were driven away by the smoke from thyme  Thyme was a multi-medicine and used in all kinds of diseases. Mentioning a few: Thyme heals bowles which are sore after blood sot = dysentery; it strengthens the brain to smell to the plant, it can be put upon the head against dissiness, garden thyme cooked in wine is good for shortness of breath , drives out worms, poison, dead embryo etc. 

Simon Paulli 1648
Oil of thyme against head and kidney pain, clusters of garden thyme put in beer as a means for melancholia, wild thyme has empowering and expectorant properties. as a part of a balm it was in the 1700s used as a cover for headache and dissiness. Used in a tea against colic  A decoction to children with intestinal worms 

Farmhands chamber, Hjerl Open Air Museum, photo gb
Superstition; and against vermits
An advice to the farmer: Pluck thyme silently and put it under the first sheaf of straw, this will keep away the rats.
The bedstraw which was delivered to Christian 4. was mixed with thyme as a protection aginast bed fleas. or else it was said that wild thyme only drove away women's fleas and not men's fleas. 
Chicken with fleas or other vermins were smoked with thyme and hops. 
Against flea beetles put out thyme mixed with wormwood and garlic.

Replacement of tea, hops and tobacco.
Shag tobacco, wikipedia
Children in the country were sent out with a basket to pluck wild thyme, which was dried and gave a tea substitute in winter (1880) The tea was added sugar and cinnamon  An old saying was "this tea you must have when the windows are white" = when it is hard frost. Wild thyme tea was in the 1800s recommended as a substitute for hops Also in Greenland was wild thyme used as a tea 
InWWII thyme was dried into shag tobacco, and already in 1780-1800 they used the thyme as tobacco and to chew. 

Hjerl Hede Open Air Museum, photo gb
Thyme was a part of a cover upon the abscesses of the horse. Wine with crushed thyme was rubbed upon the tongue of a cow against heart- inflammation. Tea of thyme was used to bathe the cattle against the food and mouth disease. 

photo: market, Thymus serpyllum, pharmacy, Viborg Museum, Hjerl Hede Open Air Museum: grethe bachmann
other photos: wikipedia
Sketches: grethe bachmann  

Krydderurter i haven , Anemette Olesen, Politiken, 1996/1998. 
Danske klosterurter, Anemette Olesen Aschehoug 2001.
Brøndegaard, Folk og Flora, bd. 4, Thymus vulgaris.
Krydderurtehaven paa knatten , Annemarta Borgen,
A Garden Herbal Anthony Gardiner
Ceres Esplan Helbredende urter 1981, Hernovs forlag, oversat af Hans Henrik Sørensen og Michael Beck fra Vitskøl Kloster. Original titel: "Herbal teas, tisanes and loitions."

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