Taking thyme

April 24, 2005|by Dorry Baird Norris

This spring, spurred on by last year's heavy rains, the perennial weeds - self-heal, gill-over-the-ground and chickweed - have emerged with great vigor. As I attacked them this week, I had to admit, that although weeding isn't my favorite pastime, it does give one time to think.

Some people sit and meditate, others pull weeds and ponder. What are those tiny seedlings under the lavender? Why is it that the Rosa rugosa alba pops up all over the garden yet when I try to separate the shoots from the mother plant they invariably die? Why do rabbits nibble on tulips but not on daffodils? How did thyme become a symbol of courage?

Since the roses and rabbits aren't on speaking terms with me, I settled on searching out the answer about thyme and courage.

The various dictionaries of Latin plant names present several derivations. None compares in clarity to that of Art Tucker and Tom DeBaggio in "The Big Book of Herbs." They say that the generic name Thymus was "derived from one of three ancient Greek root words: thumus, soul or spirit; thymon, fumigate; and/or from the Greek thumon, mind."


No courage mentioned here, but elsewhere it was noted that in ancient and medieval times thyme was thought to be a source of "invigoration." Perhaps being invigorated was construed as courageous.

Page through any book of flower-speak and they declaim as one: thyme symbolizes courage, bravery, activity and strength. I've often wondered if the activity that thyme is credited with comes from the swarms of buzzing bees that hover about collecting nectar from the blossoms to create a heavenly honey.

In the Middle Ages, ladies sent their knights off to battle with a keepsake embroidered with a sprig of thyme. Beyond giving him a token to sustain his courage she may also have had an ulterior motive. Since a sprig of thyme worn in the hair was thought to make women irresistible to men, perhaps the ladies hoped it would make their lords remember their women left at home.

Long ago a magical bath of marjoram and thyme was enjoyed in the spring to ensure that all the sorrows and ills were removed from the bather. In those dark days, when bathing was not a regular experience, a bath of sweet-smelling herbs surely perked up the psyche and made one more pleasant to be around. Then, all sparkly clean, they would tuck a sprig of thyme under the pillow to assure a restful night's sleep (unless the scent of thyme proved irresistible to their husbands.)

When it comes to growing thyme in your garden, you have lots of choices. The genus Thymus includes about 350 species with many variations in appearance and scent within a single species.

When picking out your plants, don't rely only on labels, for two plants labeled with the same name may have slightly different characteristics, especially if they have been grown from seed. To be on the safe side, smell and taste a leaf and then decide which pleases you the most.

Common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is one of the most popular varieties for cooking. It is generally 6 to 10 inches tall and blooms in July and August.

As far as I'm concerned, no herb garden is complete without at least one lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus). The pale lilac flowers appear in late spring and sprigs can be harvested anytime. You haven't lived until you've tasted roasted chicken stuffed with lemon thyme.

Once those two varieties are in hand, explore the other thymes that the nursery has in stock. Elfin, Doone Valley, Mayfair, Silver and Wooly are worth a look. If you are tempted by the variegated thymes, keep in mind that they often revert to their original green color.

Thymes like loose, well-drained alkaline soil. Thyme thrives and experiences less winter-kill when planted among stones.

Each spring, thyme looks really tatty. Cut out the dead stems. To make more plants, choose several of the longest stems that are leafing out and make a tiny cut on the stem halfway between where it come out of the ground and the green tip. Lay the stem flat on the ground, cover with soil and lay a stone or brick over the dirt to keep it in place. Soon, new roots will form and the new clone can be cut away from the mother plant.

These days we all need a generous dose of courage, so plant lots of thyme!

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