Thyme is a known and widespread aromatic herb, widely used in Mediterranean cuisine; in nature this small evergreen perennial, which often forms semi-shrubby, develops throughout Europe, from Spain to the north of the United Kingdom, and throughout the Mediterranean area; many species are widespread in Asia, both in tropical areas and in the Himalayan highlands. There are about two hundred species of Tymus vulgaris, and almost as many hybrids have been obtained from the most widespread; the plants are generally small in size, especially in height, and do not exceed 25-35 cm, but form large spots over the years.
The foliage is roundish or oval, of decidedly small size, and together with the thin, branched stems, gives it a dense and compact appearance. The type leaves are covered with a thin down, which in many species and cultivars makes them greyish; there are plants of all colors, from dark green to yellow, with variegated, striped leaves, or with a contrasting color margin.
In late spring or summer at the apex of the thin stems tiny flowers bloom, usually pink, gathered in spike or roundish inflorescences; some species and varieties are very floriferous, and apparently resemble a carpet of flowers. The leaves and flowers are strongly aromatic, and this feature makes them very interesting as aromatic plants; the delicate and compact appearance of the plants also makes them ideal as garden perennials, to be used as a soil cover.
Most species of thyme are cultivated as the most common perennial aromatic plants common in Italy, such as rosemary or lavender: they prefer very sunny locations, and generally tend to perish if they do not receive at least a few hours a day of direct sunlight ; they need a very well drained soil, which contains a good quantity of sand, not clayey, since the water stagnations, especially in winter, can cause the death of the plant within a few weeks, due to radical rot.
Despite their delicate appearance, they are very resistant plants, which in nature can also be found at the edge of roads or in stony areas, with very poor soil. Also in pots, it is good to place them in a draining soil, enriched with sand or pumice stone. They are watered when they are planted, and later on show strong resistance to drought; if they are planted in spring or in a wet season, they tend not to need further treatment, if not light watering in particularly dry periods.
At the end of winter, a slow release granular fertilizer is supplied around the plant, which will melt with every watering. There are many species and varieties of Tymus, but most do not fear frost and can withstand temperatures below -10 ° C, and summer heat; as we said fundamental for the winter survival of these plants is the good drainage of the soil; if the earth of our garden is very compact and tends to remain wet for a long time, we place the thyme in an area where in winter it is very sunny, so that the sun's rays keep the soil dry.
The small herbaceous plants, with the passing of the months, form woody branches, which with the passing of the years tend to undress in the lower part, just like some species of shrubs; to keep the plants always compact and dense it is advisable to prune the plant after flowering, so as to favor the development of new lateral shoots.
Thyme in the garden
As an aromatic plant, thyme is typically found in the flowerbed of the garden, next to rosemary or savory; but the plants are decidedly very decorative, and the small size, the compact foliage available in various colors, the spring flowering, make it an excellent perennial to be used also in the garden, or in a vase. The small plants of Tymus are used as ground cover, in the rock garden, or even in the area of the garden so poor and dry as to remain usually bare, as no plant seems to be able to grow. The habit of the plant, generally creeping, makes it very suitable even on dry stone walls, from which it often falls, forming in the spring a small cascade of pink flowers.
Very beautiful also the flower beds prepared by combining different varieties, in order to give them movement, thanks to the different colors of the foliage. Thyme is also cultivated in pots; since the plant tends to be ground covering, prostrate or drooping, it is preferable to place young plants in bowl-shaped pots, that is not too deep, but very large, so that they can develop a small patch of leaves; they are also very suitable for hanging baskets.
The most widespread species
Generally speaking, it is difficult to find a tymus plant in the nursery belonging to a botanical species; very often, even when the label on the vase says "Thymus vulgaris", we are faced with a horticultural variety, chosen for the particularly aromatic foliage, or the particularly creeping habit. The varieties of thyme available are varied, some hundreds, but their cultivation needs are almost identical to those of botanical species; in Italy varieties of course closely related to the Mediterranean species are widespread, and therefore have needs that come close to those of the thyme that we also find in nature.
Often in the nursery the plants are cultivated to quickly obtain a small dome that fills the vase; to do this they are kept in controlled climatic conditions, as if they were in a perennial spring, warm and humid. For this reason, as soon as you take them home, plants often need more care than they will need once they are rooted in our pots or in our garden. It is therefore recommended, as soon as the tymus arrives in the garden, to have some more attention for the seedlings, watering them as soon as the soil dries up, placing them in an area hit by the sun's rays only in the first hours of the day and keeping them in a well ventilated place .
Thymus praecox, also called wild thyme, is a species native to the Mediterranean area; produces small, olive-green, roundish leaves and spring flowers of a deep pink color, very bright, gathered in thick inflorescences. There are many varieties, with dark or light foliage; all the species and varieties of thymus praecox retain the typical aroma of the thyme, pungent and pleasant.
This species, and its varieties, is very suitable to be used as a ground cover, as over the years it forms a compact and impenetrable carpet; perfect for covering dry stone walls, or as a ground cover in sunny areas of the garden. Thymus praecox "Elfin" has leaves covered with a thin hair, which give a fleshy look; Thymus praecox "coccineus" produces very intense flowers, almost fuchsia, and has particularly abundant flowering. Thymus praecox "albiflorus" has white flowers.
Thymus pulegioides, also called thymus citriodorus, has slightly larger foliage than the other species, light green in color, and flowers in erect inflorescences, which rise slightly from the foliage, and bloom in summer. It is a small shrub, which does not exceed 30 cm in height, and prefers sunny areas, with very well drained limestone soil. There are varieties with almost yellow or variegated yellow foliage; the aroma is that of thyme, but with a very intense lemon accent, it is often called lemon thyme; once thymus pulegioides, and thymus citriodorus were considered as two different botanical species; DNA studies of the two plants have instead shown that it appears to be the same species. Another name of the Thymus pulegioides, is thyme with large leaves, where large simply indicates that it is a foliage almost twice as large as that of other thyme species.
Thymus pulegioides "Bertrand Anderson" has light green foliage and light lilac flowers; Thymus pulegioides "Aureus" has very light foliage, almost yellow, as the name of the variety suggests.
Wild thyme, also called pepolino, or pepola, or wild grass, is native to the Mediterranean area, and throughout Europe, it is the most widespread species in gardens, and also one of the most used to create particular varieties; it has a creeping habit, and produces small dark green leaves, and flowers in late spring, of a pink color. It lives in the wild in North Africa and also in northern Europe, reflecting its great adaptability; wherever there is a good well-drained soil and a few hours of direct sunlight, this plant develops without problems, producing large low spots, up to 25-30 cm high. Often the thyme snake is advertised as a ground cover plant also suitable for trampling, even if this is not entirely true, in fact if it is trampled the thyme dies within a few weeks; rather, it can find an ideal space if planted along the paths in the garden, for example among the stones of a walkway; in this way, the thymus can spread out to form a carpet, but the feet of those who walk on it will rest on the stones, without excessively damaging the plants.
Thymus serpyllum "minimus" has particularly small dimensions, and does not exceed 7-10 cm in height; Thymus serpyllym "Alfin" has fleshy foliage and deep pink flowers; Thymus serpyllum "albus" has white flowers.
The Thyme vulgaris is a Mediterranean plant, evergreen perennial herbaceous, with leaves covered by a very thin hair, of small dimensions, of almost linear shape; compared to the leaves of other thyme species, those of the vulgar thyme are thicker and fleshy, with an often more intense aroma. The flowers are light lilac, almost white; Thyme vulgare plants often die due to cold in areas where winters have very low temperatures associated with high environmental humidity, or heavy rainfall. It prefers stony or sandy soils, not excessively fertile, and sunny places. Of all the thyme species it is the one that is most often used as an aromatic plant, rather than as ornamental plants, as small plants tend to rise quickly, up to 25-35 cm in height, without producing many lateral branches, and therefore tend not to form compact spots, but small sparse shrubs. Despite the not so decorative aspect, the vulgar thyme is decidedly very aromatic, and therefore it is very appreciated for its foliage and cultivated mainly for that.
In addition to the botanical species and their hybrids, there are also many varieties of thyme, which cannot be grouped into any botanical species, since they are not cultivars, but real hybrids; Thymus "highland cream" has light green leaves with a golden margin; Thymus x citridodorus "Silver queen" has olive green foliage, with a white margin; Thymus X citriodorus "Gold Edge" has golden foliage, with few green streaks.
Thyme in herbal medicine
In addition to being used for thousands of years as an aromatic plant, used in particular to accompany meat and fish, thyme is also a medicinal plant; the thymol contained in the foliage was once used in particular for its antiseptic and antifungal properties; today thymol is used to produce drugs against cardiac arrhythmia, against glaucoma, to lower blood pressure.
The antiseptic properties are exploited above all to produce toothpastes, products to improve breath, or even candies, syrups and mouthwashes to be used to combat gum problems, laryngitis and pharyngitis. The antiseptic power of the thyme is also used in the production of lotions and products for personal hygiene, and especially in the gels used to disinfect the skin of the hands. Excellent thyme-based products are also prepared, to be used for problems related to skin health.
The name of the thyme derives from the Greek, and means courage; in ancient times it was believed that this herb instilled courage in those who wore twigs, and it was used as a gift for those who left in battle. But they also tried to instill courage in less dangerous situations: the children who feared the dark, were put thyme under the pillow, to infuse a sleep devoid of nightmares.
Propagate the thyme
Thyme produces innumerable small flowers, followed by innumerable small seeds; from these seeds new plants can be obtained, but this method of propagation is not among the most widespread; this is because first of all the thyme seeds do not always sprout, and therefore it is necessary to sow so many to obtain a few plants. In addition to this, most of the thyme plants present in the nursery are hybrids, and therefore we will hardly obtain from seed a plant identical to the mother plant. The great availability of seeds, however, can lead us to try the sowing of thyme. We sow in autumn, or in late winter, in a well-drained soil, which must be kept moist until the young plants sprout. As soon as they are large enough to be moved, we will place them in individual containers, which will be kept in a place sheltered from frost for at least the first cold season, as the young seedlings cannot survive the very intense cold.
With greater simplicity, we can propagate these seeds shrubs, by dividing the clumps of roots; in autumn, we unearth the bread of roots at the base of the plant, and divide it in half, using a well sharpened and disinfected knife. When we produce this type of portion, we will have to be careful to keep the percentage of foliage and roots balanced between the two portions: too many roots and the plant will have to work hard to produce all its compact foliage again; few roots and the plant will dissolve, unable to keep all the leaves already present.
Once two plants are produced in this way, we can immediately reposition them.
Thyme also spreads by cuttings, taking small woody twigs in the summer, choosing the branches that did not produce flowers. The cuttings are buried in pots, in a good well-drained soil, and are watered regularly, until they begin to sprout; the cuttings of thyme root very easily, and this type of propagation is very useful when we want to reproduce a variety with particular foliage or flowers.
Thyme in the kitchen
The leaves and flowers are used in the kitchen, especially to accompany meat and fish-based foods; it is also used in salads, in association with tomatoes, and with thyme aromatic liqueurs are also prepared. It is one of the plants that are used in mixtures called Provencal herbs.
The tymus is used fresh, collecting a small branch directly from the plant, which is then added to the whole foods, or by removing the small leaves from the woody twig.
The plant retains most of its fragrance even if it is dried, so it can be harvested after flowering even in large quantities, making the leaves dry in the sun, to use them throughout the year.
The aroma of the type is intense and woody, vaguely reminiscent of rosemary; the very small leaves are often also used to decorate dishes, because they are very pleasant to see. There are many varieties of thyme, each of which presents considerable variations in the aroma given off by the foliage; thymus X citriodorum has a strong lemon aroma, but there is also thyme with an orange aroma and scarcely aromatic foliage.
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