Friday, November 12, 2010

The thymes, they are a-changin'!

Thyme is such a versatile herb, and it comes in so many different varieties, it's hard NOT to use it in every dish in the kitchen. I found a saying among new cooks in the kitchen: "When in doubt, use thyme."
Thyme is a low-growing, spreading perennial in the Mint family (Lamiaceae) that consists of many branches of tiny leaves that are described as having a smoky aroma when crushed. The origin of the botanical name for thyme, Thymus, is not exactly certain. There are two possibilities of where the Greek term thymus came from: one theory is that it came from the term "thumos" which means courage, or that it came from "thymon" which means to fumigate.
Without thyme, the mummies that we study today would not be as intact as they are!
Thyme was in use long before the Greeks though. About 2000 years before the Greeks , the Egyptians used oil of thyme (known as tham in Egypt) for its antiseptic and antibacterial qualities. It was a chief oil used to anoint the bodies of the dead in the mummification process so that the flesh would not decay. Alright, now back to Greece, where it's use was popular: an ancient Grecian suffering from nightmares would drink tea of thyme to give them courage through the night. It was thought a high compliment to be told that you smelled of thyme in Greece! Even to this day in Greece, Mount Hymettus (a mountain near Athens) is famous for its honey, due to the thyme growing around the beehives.
Those apiary fans, take note: thyme flowers + bees = FANTASTIC HONEY (We now know scientifically that the success of beehives due to thyme is that thymol, the chemical in thyme, helps prevent bacteria and fungal issues with bees).
In Rome, the Grecian belief that thyme was an herb of courage was held strong as well: warriors would sit in baths with sprigs of thyme before battle to bolster their resolve. Someone melancholic, or shy, would be given thyme to smell throughout the day to make them more cheery. Burning thyme in the home or a temple was thought to keep away venomous creatures such as scorpions. The Romans also found thyme to be the perfect compliment to cheeses and wine. The Romans brought thyme with them to the British Isles in their conquests, and thus thyme spread worldwide. In the Middle Ages, women stitched scarves with the image of a bee over a spring of thyme for their knights to wear as a symbol of great courage. In Japan, the term "hanakotoba" means the language of the flowers, a Japanese style of language conveying meaning through discussion of flowers. Thyme stood for courage in hanakotoba, though when it gained popularity in the Victorian era in Europe, thyme took on the meaning of thriftiness.
In Japan, there is actually a band called "Thyme", named after the hanakotoba meaning for courage.
In the story of Christ's birth, it is said that when the Virgin Mary gave birth, the manger's hay was strewn with thyme. In magic, thyme is said to be good against nightmares, for healing and purification, and for enhancing psychic. Thyme is a key herb in French cuisine, and in the kitchen it is used alongside of veal, lamb, poultry, beef, fish. Complementing flavors to the thyme include garlic, lemon, and basil.

Thyme has its medicinal applications as well, though I must say that all publications that I have checked up on agree that thyme in internal use is not advisable during pregnancy, since the oil is slightly toxic. That being said, medical doses drawn from the plant itself rather than the use of the oil is used for many different ailments: a tea of thyme is great as a mouthwash, for a sore throat, infected gums, or as a mild cure for a hangover. Thyme in the bath has been known to help with rheumatic pain. In Chinese herbal medicine, thyme is thought to be good for suppressing coughs, so is used for bronchitis, laryngitis and whooping cough. It is thought that Galen, a Grecian medical practitioner, when he discovered the thymus gland named it after the thyme plant because he believed that the gland was responsible for bringing courage to the body. Thymol and carvacrol are the main chemicals that are responsible for the aroma and antiseptic and antibacterial properties of thyme, and thymol is one of the main components of most mouthwashes.
Key ingredients: menthol (from the last post!) and thymol. Yum.
So the next time you rinse your mouth with listerine, go to a natural history museum and see an intriguing mummy on display, or you have a great honey think about thyme and how it played a vital role!

NEXT UP: I'm changing it up a bit. I want to do an herb outside of the mint family, unless anyone has any objections. I will come back to sage, savory, etc. in a bit. I am planning on doing chives or dill next!


  1. Fragrant an interesting as usual. I was thinking about a border of thyme in my new potager. After this it will certainly be there.

  2. It can also make an inexpensive, high-concept Halloween costume: I hung two packages of thyme around my neck one year and went as a waste of thyme. (The conceptual / waste part of it comes from me opening the packages and dumping it all out at the end of the night.)

  3. That's hilarious subjunctive! Next year, hang them in a row around off of your belt, and then it can be a "Waist of thyme" ;-)

  4. This is all interesting and quite informative. I'm amazed by your knowledge. I'll most likely have thyme on my mind while I brush my teeth and gargle these next couple of days.

  5. It means thymes play an important role in all actions of the worlds. As mainly their used you have discussed very well.

  6. Hey GG,
    As you have pointed out Thyme is pretty versatile. I recently was walking an abandoned olive grove in south France in my search for property to buy and kept smelling something very pungent. Eventually I realized that I had been walking through a couple of acres of Thyme. I think the previous owner had been growing it commercially amongst his trees. Needless to say I had to dig up a plant and now it's getting established nicely in a pot on my windowsill.