As I passed the cart of root bound herbs in tiny pots, I heard a woman ask the clerk, "Do you have thyme?" The young man glanced at his wrist and answered, "Yes ma'am, it's 8:15." Then they gazed at each other with that same vaguely baffled look men and women so often have when trying to communicate.
Compact bushes under a foot tall, the thyme she had in mind comes in dozens of varieties. It's been used by many cultures in diverse ways. The ancient Greeks burned it for purification and cleansing. Others carried it with them for energy and courage when going into battle. Europeans carried it with them when they came to the new world.
Some legends say that a sprig of thyme tucked into your pillowcase will prevent nightmares, while others say that it can help you see fairies. Frankly, I rather like what it does for spaghetti, stuffing and soups.
Types of thyme
The thyme that is most often used in the kitchen is thymus vulgaris, or common thyme. It grows from 6 to 9 inches tall, and spreads very slowly. If you buy a tiny herb plant with a marker that says simply "Thyme," this is probably what you'll get. It has lovely lavender blossoms that attract bees and tiny pollinating wasps.
Like most of the common culinary herbs, thyme originates in the Mediterranean and prefers dry, rocky, alkaline soil. Fortunately many varieties will tolerate heavy, wet, acid soil, because that's what we have. Check with the local nurseries. Most nurseries carry several varieties of thyme, and they carry ones that will grow well here.
Lemon thyme, caraway thyme, golden thyme, creeping thyme, mother-of-thyme, the list goes on and on, and so do the sturdy little plants. Ground covers like wooly thyme work well as paths or around stepping stones, releasing a powerful, earthy aroma with every step. It spreads fairly quickly, and it's easy to pull off a hunk and start it somewhere else. While they love the sun, most thymes will tolerate all but deep shade.
Thyme is a perennial, but after about three years it gets woody and rangy. When it's no longer attractive, propagate more thyme through stem cuttings. Experts will tell you that thyme is very difficult to start, and it is, for people who are trying to start massive quantities. It doesn't like any of the planting mediums like potting soil, peat and perlite.
There is a trick to starting thyme that will nearly guarantee success. Take a nice cutting about 4 inches long, stick the base in your mouth for a few moments, dip it in rooting hormone and poke it immediately into the pre-soaked earth beside the parent plant.
Every morning you wake to a mossy jungle that springs up over night in your mouth. All the fine bacteria that makes such rapid growth possible may as well be doing something useful, like rooting thyme.
Once your little plants have rooted, you can pot one up to keep on the porch, then snip off little sprigs to toss into winter soups and stews.