Thyme is a perennial native to the Mediterranean. It is hardy to zone five, but is prone to disease and insect infestation in the deep south. Southern gardeners may want to grow thyme indoors in containers so that conditions may be carefully controlled. Most varieties grow to only six to twelve inches in height, and they make an attractive edging for the perennial border. Leaves are dark gray-green in color, and pale pink flowers bloom at the tips of the stems in summer.
You can start thyme from seeds to get a wider selection of varieties. Most nurseries carry transplants in spring and summer. It prefers a sandy, dry soil and plenty of sun. If your soil is acidic, add some lime. If you live in a very cold climate, protect the plants in winter by mulching heavily. Once established, the only care will be regular pruning of the plants and removal of dead flowers and pruning to remove old wood.
Leaves can be harvested for fresh use throughout the summer, but the flavor is best just before flowering. To dry, cut the stems just as the flowers start to open and hang in small bunches. Harvest sparingly the first year.
Thyme has a strong piquant or lemony flavor. For fresh use, the flavor is best just before flowering.
Enhance the flavor of meat, fish and poultry dishes with thyme.
For chicken and fish marinades, bruise fresh sprigs of thyme and tarragon, and combine with red-wine vinegar and olive oil.
Use in herb butters and cottage cheese.
It is safe to use thyme as a seasoning during pregnancy, but strong medicinal doses should be avoided if there is any possibility that you are pregnant.
Thyme was grown in monastery gardens in southern France and in Spain and Italy during the Middle Ages for use as a cough remedy, digestive aid and treatment for intestinal parasites.
A solution of thyme's most active ingredient, thymol, thyme's most active ingredient, is used in such over-the-counter products as Listerine mouthwash and Vicks VapoRub because of its well-known antibacterial and antifungal properties. Thymol apparently also has a therapeutic effect on the lungs. Ingesting or inhaling the oil helps to loosen phlegm and relax the muscles in the respiratory tract.
In Germany, concoctions of thyme are frequently prescribed for coughs, including those resulting from whooping cough, bronchitis and emphysema. In the United States, thyme extract was included in a popular cough syrup, Pertussin, that is no longer on the market. Thyme is used in herbal teas prepared for colds and flus. In addition, thyme has antifungal properties and can be used against athlete's foot.
To make a tea, use two teaspoons of dried herb per cup of boiling water and steep for ten minutes. Add sage to the tea if you have a nagging cough. The Food and Drug Administration includes thyme on its list of herbs generally regarded as safe, but large doses may cause intestinal problems. If you experience diarrhea or bloating, cut back on the amount you're using or discontinue use altogether.
A stronger tea is useful as a mouthwash or rinse to treat sore gums.