Growing Your Own Thyme

Growing your own thyme pleases people in so many ways it should be no surprise that more than 300 types have come into cultivation.

| April/May 2004

Growing your own thyme pleases people in so many ways it should be no surprise that more than 300 types have come into cultivation. The thymes preferred by cooks, broadly categorized as English or French thymes (Thymus vulgaris), impart a woodsy, aromatic flavor to savory dishes based on vegetables, grains, seafoods and meats. A few fruits make tasty thyme combinations, too, including figs and pears. The English thymes have broader leaves than the French; both are well-mannered garden plants that grow as subshrubs.

The citrus thymes (T. x citriodorus, T. pulegiodes and assorted hybrids) often are labeled “lemon” thyme in garden centers, and many feature variegated leaves. They develop variable flavor potencies, and as a consequence sometimes may be more useful as ornamentals than as culinary plants.

A third group, generically called creeping thymes, includes T. serpyllum, T. praecox and T herba-barona. Typically, these are grown as blooming ground covers, planted between steppingstones or in walkway crevices, where their spicy scents are released underfoot, and the flower nectar attracts bees and other beneficial insects. In former times, T. serpyllum, also called “mother of thyme,” often was planted atop graves. As culinary plants, most creeping thymes rank far below the English and French thymes, or the best-flavored citrus strains.

Historically regarded as the herb of courage, thyme was a leading medicinal herb for “psychological problems,” including shyness, nightmares and melancholy. It also is a source of antioxidants, and its essential oil contains high concentrations of thymol, once used as a topical antibiotic. Too much is toxic, however, and thyme oil applied to the skin often causes serious irritation — yet you are completely safe sipping a cup of thyme tea or using thyme liberally in cooking.

Mediterranean cooks make heavy use of thyme, which is native to that region, and innovative modern cooks everywhere employ it as well. Simple dishes such as roasted vegetables or risotto are transformed into savory specialties with the addition of the woodsy overtones of thyme, and any recipe that calls for cream sauce or cheese can be enhanced with a bit of the herb. You also can add thyme to dry rubs for meat, especially beef or pork, or to a stockpot; it is one of the three herbs in French bouquet garni, along with parsley and bay, and it holds up well to long cooking times.

Whenever fresh sprigs are available, they make a wonderful edible garnish to any dish flavored with thyme during cooking. At the table, simply pull your thumb and index finger along the stem from end to end to release the tiny, tasty leaves.

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