Effective, safe, and inexpensive, medicinal herbs are simple to grow, and they can be used to naturally fortify your body against common upsets and ailments. In Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs (Storey Publishing, 2012), Gladstar explains how to grow and use 33 of her favorite herbs to make 124 medicinal recipes, including restorative teas, salves, syrups, and pills. In this excerpt from chapter 3, Gladstar gives tips for growing and using thyme — a powerful disinfectant — to make thyme syrup and thyme honey to fight colds and coughs.
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Oddly, diminutive, fragrant thyme is beloved by gardeners and bees alike and has a long and respected medicinal past but is neglected by many contemporary herbalists. I think it’s one of our best medicines. It’s one of my favorite herbal cold remedies; I’ve often used it to make a delicious and effective cough syrup.
Dr. Paul Lee, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, did a number of studies on thyme and found that it has a major strengthening effect on the thymus gland, thereby enhancing immune function. Lee became widely known for his thyme salve and his famous “thymus thump”: he’d apply generous amounts of his homemade salve over his thymus gland and then, Tarzan fashion, thump his upper chest, where the thymus gland is located. As bizarre as this may sound, the “thymus thump” has been proved to stimulate thymus gland activity, perhaps much in the same way that knowledgeable gardeners know to stimulate plant growth by shaking their pots or brushing the tops of their plants to simulate stress.
Thyme is a hardy perennial that seems to thrive in most climates, though it prefers well-drained, alkaline soil and a sunny location. Seeds can be sown directly in the soil in the late spring or indoors in flats for an earlier start. There are many varieties of thyme, some that grow upright and others that are creepers.
For medicinal purposes, choose common garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and/or lemon thyme (T. citriodorus), my favorite thyme for tea. As the plant matures, it becomes woody and benefits from heavy trimming in the early spring, before new growth commences. Trimming will keep your thyme happy. Just talking about more thyme makes me happy.
Medicinal Uses of Thyme
Thyme is a powerful and effective disinfectant and can be used both externally (as a wash) and internally to help fight off infection. One of the best herbal cold remedies, it’s often used to help ward off colds and as a rinse to treat sore throat and oral infections. It also makes a fine tea for treating coughs and chest complaints and is used in many antifungal remedies. A recent study shows that it’s rich in antioxidants (most plants are) and has a markedly tonic effect, supporting normal body functions. It seems to have a positive effect on the glandular system as a whole, and especially the thymus gland.
- Parts used: Leaf and flower
- Key constituents: Essential oil with variable constituents (thymol, cineole, borneol), flavonoids, tannins
- Safety factor: Thyme is completely safe and nontoxic
This is one of my favorite syrups for treating coughs, colds and chest complaints. I bought my first bottle of thyme syrup in a small market in the south of France, and I’ve been hooked ever since. It’s very effective medicine, but also delicious enough to add to sparkling water and serve as a sparkling thyme tisane.
2 to 4 ounces thyme leaf and flower (fresh is best but dried will do)
1 quart water
1 cup honey
To make the syrup:
Combine the thyme and water in a pan over very low heat. Simmer lightly, with the lid ajar to allow the steam to escape, until the liquid is reduced by half, giving you about 2 cups of strong thyme tea. Strain, and compost the spent herbs. Add the honey to the warm liquid and stir, just until the honey is melted. Store in a glass jar in the refrigerator, where the honey will keep for 3 to 4 weeks.
Take 1/2 to 1 teaspoon every couple of hours until the cold or cough subsides.
Variation: For a longer shelf life, add 1/4 cup of brandy to each cup of syrup. Brandy is not only a good preservative, but it also serves as an antispasmodic and will help relax the throat muscles, which is helpful in treating a cough.
Thyme honey probably wouldn’t be considered the strongest remedy for coughs and colds, but it is one of the better-tasting herbal cold remedies.
To make the honey:
Fill a widemouthed glass jar half full of fresh thyme leaves and flowers. Gently warm a batch of raw, unpasteurized honey, so that it will better extract the properties of the thyme. Do not overheat or boil; heat over 110 degrees Fahrenheit will kill the honey’s enzymes and destroy its medicinal benefit. Add enough honey to the jar to cover the herbs, and place the jar in a warm spot (near a sunny window will work). Let steep for approximately 2 weeks. (You could also use a slow cooker set to 100 degrees. It will take only a few hours of constant warm heat to make a strong medicinal honey.)
When the honey tastes and smells strongly of thyme, it’s finished. You can leave the tiny thyme leaves in the honey, which is what I do. Of course you can also strain them out for a more professional look, but it can be messy! Bottle and store in a cool pantry or in the refrigerator, where the honey will keep for several months.
Use by the teaspoonful. Enjoy this delicious thyme honey by itself, or use it to sweeten teas for additional medicinal benefits.
Variation: For additional flavor, add 4 to 6 drops of pure essential lemon oil to each cup of thyme honey. Delicious!
Reprinted with permission from Rosemary Gladstar's Medicinal Herbs (Storey Publishing, 2012) by Rosemary Gladstar. Buy this book from our store: Rosemary Gladstar's Medicinal Herbs.