Thymus vulgaris L.

Common thyme, T. vulgaris, is a cultivated form of T. serpyllumthe wild thyme or mother of thyme, which is native to the greater part of Europe. Common thyme was cultivated in England by the middle of the 16th century and sold in London markets. It is a perennial, with a woody root and hard stems which grow to a height of 30-45cm. The dark green leaves are tiny and very aromatic. It bears whorls of little two-lipped lilac-coloured flowers. It is of the plant family Lamiaceae (mint family). The plant has a predominant scent that is characteristic of many of the Thymus genus. There are 6 or 7 known subspecies of T. vulgaris and these are characterized by their essential oil makeup.


Southern Europe from the Western Mediterranean region to Southern Italy. The herb is much cultivated in Eastern and Southern Europe, including Spain, Portugal and Northern Africa, but also in the US.

The name thyme is borrowed from Latin thymus, which goes back to Greek thymon ‘thyme’. The Greek plant name is usually put in relation with thymos ‘spirit’, originally meaning smoke. The name thyme comes from the Greek word meaning to ‘fumigate’, a type of incense was made from the plant to drive away insects. Yet there is also another, unrelated explanation that the Greek name actually comes from Old Egyptian tham, which denoted a plant used in the mummification process.

Most Euro­pean languages have related names all deriving from Latin thymus. Examples are German Thymian, Italian timo, Finnish timjami, Estonian tüümian, Dutch tijm, Russian timyan , Greek thimari and Hebrew timin.

 On the German name of creeping thyme, Quendel. English creeping thyme and Swedishkryptimian both refer to the shrub’s creeping shape. A similar association lies behind French serpolet, Italianserpillo, Basque txerpol and others: These derive via Latin serpullum from the Greek plant name herpyllos; which in turn is related to Greek herpein and Latin serpere creep (cf. serpent, literallythe creeping one). The botanical species name serpyllum is a compromise between both the Greek and Latin forms.


Of the many further species of the genus Thymus, only Th. zygis (Spanish Thyme) is an accepted substitute. Its essential oil is low in thymol methyl ether (less than 0.5%), which is important for the characterization.

The other species (Th. satureoides, Th. mastichina, Th. broussonetti, Th. maroccanus, Th. pallidus and Th. algeriensis) are considered inferior, because of their lower content of thymol and because some of them contain other aroma components, especially carvacrol. Th. serpyllum (continental wild thyme, a mountain plant of temperate Europe) has only local value as spice; its flowers are used to prepare a syrup with strong thyme fragrance. Most unusually, Th. herba–barona almost perfectly copies the scent of caraway.

There are number of useful and decorative varieties: T. serpyllum cocconeus, which has red flowers; and basil and orange thymes. T. aureous, a bright gold; T. citriodorus, a lemon scented thyme which has a silver-leaved form Thyme is an excellent bee plant and has always been planted near hives. It grows wild in the countryside of Greece; hence the flavour of their honey. Butterflies love thyme too.


This plant looks just like regular thyme – until you crush a few of its leaves and breath in its sweet, lemony aroma. In cooking, I’ve started to realize that it’s the best of both worlds. It delivers a soft herbal thyme flavor along with a subtle essence of lemon, all without any of the bitterness we sometimes get from regular thyme. Lemon thyme is really terrific in any dish that calls for both of those ingredients 

Another cultivar sometimes found in markets is orange thyme (Th. vulgaris var. odoratissimus) with strong thyme fragrance and a hint of orange peel aroma.

Lastly, lemon thyme (Th. citriodorus = Th. pulegoides × Th. vulgaris) exhibits an unusual flavour, combining thyme aroma with the fragrance of lemons, but is little traded; it is best when fresh. Lemon thyme fits perfect to fish and fruity vegetables.

Aroma & Flavour

Thyme has a subtle, dry aroma; strongly aromatic and a slightly minty flavour.

Health Benefits of Thyme:

The content of essential oil varies drastically with climate, time of harvest and storage conditions; extreme values are 0.75% and 6.5%. Main components are the phenols thymol (ca. 40%) and carvacrol (ca. 15%). In winter, phenol content is lower (but mostly thymol); in summer, more phenols (up to 70%) are found, with significant amounts of carvacrol. Further components in the essential oil are thymol methyl ether (2%), cineol, cymene, α-pinene, borneol and esters of the latter two.

Lemon thyme, Thymus x citriodorus, was found to contain an essential oil rich in geraniol (up to 60%); other compounds identified include geranyl esters, nerol and citronellol. The lemon fragrance is due to citral (14%), and thymol was found in small (0.5%) yet not insignificant amounts. (Flavour Fragrance Journal, 10, 225, 1995)

The main components in Th. serpyllum (grown in Uttarakhand, Northern India) were found to be thymol and its methyl ether.(National Academy Science Letters, 35, 445, 2012) There is also a Thymus species native to that area (Th. linearis), whose essential contains thymol (60%), p-cymene (10%) and γ-terpinene (6%), with large variation in percentages.

In the pioneer gardens of New England thyme was grown for both cooking and medicine. The plant was collected whilst in flower and then dried for the use of tea for the relief of excessive menstruation, or for general aches and pains. As a medicine oil of thymol is used by herbalists to relieve sore throats, chest, digestive illnesses, as well for laryngitis, bronchitis and whooping cough. It is an antiseptic and forms an ingredient in some disinfectants. Oil of thyme, ‘thymol’, is added as an antiseptic to mouthwashes and toothpastes.

Thyme tea is 28g thyme leaves, dried to 550ml water, steeped and then strained. One or two tablespoons may be taken two or three times a day for all chest complaints, and for indigestion. Externally , thymol oil added with a carrier oil such as olive oil can be applied for rheumatism.

Thyme is a good ground cover plant, and gives of a good fragrance if walked upon; especially between paving. If a sprig of thyme is added with parsley and bay leaves and added to ones bath it softens and makes a wonderful fragrant bath.

Buying and storing Thyme:

  • The variety used in cooking are usually the common, the lemon and the orange thyme.
  • Thyme can be grown in your herbal garden and used fresh or dried. It is available in most green grocers and supermarkets.
  • For use as a condiment, Thyme leaves are dried then chopped, or ground. Leaves. Frequently, the whole herb (leaves plus stem) is sold.
  • Advanced drying technology may in some cases preserve the original flavour, at least in part; but these herbs are, even with best dehydration equipment, always better used fresh than dried. Better preservation may be achieved with special preparations, (e. g.pesto made from basil). The loss of fragrance is mainly due to two causes: Aroma components escape to the air (evaporation) or may be chemically destroyed, mainly by oxidation.
  • Store in a cool, dark and dry place.

sprigs of thyme for cooking

Ideas with cooking with Thyme:

  • Thyme is an important spice of European cuisines, especially in South Europe. It is especially typical for France, where fresh branches of thyme, tied up into bundles together with other fresh herbs, are added to soups, stews and a variety of sauces, being removed before serving (bouquet garni).
  • Dried thyme is also a part of the herbes de Provence, a spice mixture from Provence (Southern France).
  • Green leaves can be added to stuffings, but the dried leaves have a stronger flavour and taste.
  • Dukka, a typical spice mixture of Egypt. It is a slightly salted combination of toasted seeds (sesame, hazelnut; in Egypt, also the young peach kernels, which are similar to almonds), coriander, cumin, black pepper and thyme, predominantly used to flavour meat. Egyptian white bread eaten together with olive oil and dukka gives a very simple, but delicious meal.
  • In Central Europe, Thyme is most used for soups, fish, meat, poultry and eggs. Thyme, particularly lemon thyme, is a great addition to herbal vinegar. Industrially, thyme is often combined with marjoram for sausages and goes well with bay leaves. Cheese is sometimes flavoured with thyme.
  • Courgettes, cut into 2.5cm thick slices, dropped in salted boiling water for 3 minutes, drained and fried in a knob of butter or two, with a little of black pepper and thyme makes a wonderful summer vegetable with a delicate flavour.
  • In Britain, thyme is the most popular culinary herb besides mint. It also plays am important rôle in the cooking of the United States, particularly of the East Coast. The Creole cuisine of New Orleans (the only true regional cuisine of the US). A cooking technique peculiar to Creole cooking is the so-called blackening: Meat or fish fillets are dipped into molten butter, then coated with a spice mix and then fried very quickly at high temperature in a heavy skillet, without any further oil. The spices should become dark brown,blackened, but charring is not, in any case, desired. A typical spice mix for this purpose might, besides quite much salt and thyme, contain medium-hot paprika, white pepper, thyme, oregano, garlic and onion powder.
  • Fresh thyme is not only less intensive that dried thyme, but is has a more soft flavour, less smoky, and fits perfectly to Mediterranean vegetables (e. g., ratatouille, see lavender) or fish. Dried thyme, on the other hand, has a dominating smokiness that comes best in spicy foods, particularly meats (e. g., in the blackening procedure referred to above).
  • Rub minced garlic and Thyme over lamb, pork, or beef roasts.
  • Season cheese, tomato, and egg dishes with Thyme.
  • Blend fragrant Thyme into poultry stuffing, spaghetti or pizza sauce, and chilli along with any combination of marjoram, basil, oregano, sage, rosemary, or garlic.

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