From the Kitchen Garden: Thyme for Fall!

In ancient Greece, if you wanted to describe someone as chic and stylish, you said he or she “smelled of thyme.” Since then, thyme has never lost its appeal. The Greeks valued the herb for its pungent scent and delicious flavor, and believed it symbolized courage and the essence of life. Before competitions, athletes at the games anointed themselves with thyme oil to give them strength, and soldiers bathed in thyme-scented water to gain fortitude in battle. Thyme also was popularly worn as a garland. The poet Eubolus proclaimed, “Who would forbear to kiss a girl wearing thyme?”

The Romans wrote extensive treatises about the cultivation and benefits of thyme – Virgil, Apicius, Varro and Plautus all discuss thyme, and the encyclopedist Pliny the Elder gives no less than 28 diseases and ailments that were helped by thyme, as well as extensive advice on thyme recipes, planting, cultivation and varieties. Thyme was thought to be a particular favorite of luck-bringing fairies in the Middle Ages, and much as we use birdhouses today, beds of thyme were widely planted and set aside to lure these magic creatures to the garden.

Scholars are still debating the origin of the herb’s name. It derived either from the Greek thymon, meaning “courage” or, more prosaically, from the Greek thymiama, meaning “incense.” The latter most likely reflects thyme’s widespread use as a fumigant. According to Pliny, burning thyme “puts all venomous creatures to flight” – something gardeners with cranky spouses may wish to note.

Since the days of the Pharaohs, people have believed thyme has powerful antiseptic and preservative qualities. The Egyptians used it as a main ingredient to preserve mummies and, in fact, thyme is still used in embalming fluid. As late as World War I, thyme was commonly used in the battlefield to help heal wounds and prevent infection. Thyme also has well-known expectorant qualities and is widely used in modern cough drops and syrups.

Woolly thyme cascading down rocks; thyme thrives in hot, dry conditions similar to those of its native Mediterranean.

Growing thyme is not difficult; the hard part is choosing which type to grow. There are numerous varieties of thyme, generally divided into two groups, creeping and bush thyme. Common creeping thyme or Mother of Thyme, officially T. praecox subsp. articus, is a ground-cover species, growing to about 4 inches. Its tiny, dark green leaves form a thick mat, making Mother of Thyme ideal for interplanting between rocks in a path or as an edging specimen. Another creeping variety is woolly thyme, T. pseudolanoginosus, a very attractive plant with tiny, gray, woolly leaves. Both flower in the early summer and are a delight to the bees. Common thyme, T. vulgaris, is a bush variety, and the one most commonly used for cooking (although all thymes can be used in the kitchen). It is a woody semi-shrub with gray-green leaves that grows about one foot tall.

There are several other varieties of thyme in common cultivation, of both the creeping and bush types (see table). These can be found at specialty herb nurseries and are well worth looking into for their delightful habits and scents.

Whichever type of thyme you ultimately decide to grow, the rules of cultivation are pretty much the same for all. Thyme prefers a well-drained soil in full sun. This is important because thyme’s only real problem is a susceptibility to fungal diseases in damp conditions. Most thyme varieties are relatively hardy in our climate, although with the upright species it is best to mulch the plants heavily in the fall. Thyme may be propagated by cuttings, much like rosemary, or by seed. When seeding, it is best to sow directly into small pots in which the plant will grow, rather than using flats and then transplanting. The seed should germinate in less than a week, but it requires a temperature of about 70 degrees, so sow indoors, and preferably use bottom heat. Be sure to note that some varieties are much hardier than others; the finickier species are best grown in pots in colder areas of the country. All thyme varieties make excellent container plants and easily over-winter on a sunny windowsill, so even if you are a gardenless gardener, it’s thyme for fall!

Variety Common Name Height/

Hardiness

Flower Color/Leaves Notes
T. Broussonetii Broussoneti Thyme 5-12″ /6 Rose-red flowers Pine scented leaves;
native to Morocco
T. camphoratus Camphor Thyme 6-12″/6 Pinkish flowers, grayish leaves Camphor scented, native to Portugal and thus requires am mild, dry climate
T. x citriodorus Lemon Thyme 4-12″/6 Lemon scent translates to food; great for fish and chicken
T. x citriodorus
cltvs: ‘Argenteus’; ‘Silver Queen’ and ‘Aureus’
10″/6 Silver, silver and golden foliage, respectively Good foils to darker-leaved varieties. Lemon flavor not as pronounced
T. vulgaris Common Thyme 4″/5 White/pinkish flowers and gray leaves Great for planting between flagstones
T. vulgaris
cultivars: ‘Argenteus’, ‘Aureus’, ‘Fragrantissimus’, ‘Roseus’
Common Thyme
Varieties: Silver, Gold, Fragrant and Rose
4″/5 or 6 Silver leaved, golden-colored, very fragrant or rose-colored flowers, respectively Interesting cultivars of common thyme, valuable for special leaf color, bloom or fragrance
T. Herba-barona Caraway Thyme 2-5″/5 Lavender blooms Low creeper; great for flavoring where the suggestion of caraway is required
T. Herba-barona
‘Nutmeg’
Nutmeg Thyme 4″/5 Pink flowers Nutmeg scented; great accent in foods; fast spreader
T. pseudolanuginosus Woolly Thyme 2″/5 Furry, silver colored leaves Great spreader for walks, contrasts well with dark green varieties
T. nummularius 8-12″/6 Glossy leaves and pink flowers Makes a good edging plant
T. praecox sub. arcticus Mother of Thyme 4″/4 Dark green leaves Forms a dense mat; cultivated since Colonial times; great for walks
T. praecox sub. arcticus cultivars: ‘Albus’, ‘Coccineus’, ‘Roseus’ Mother of Thyme cultivars 4″/4 White, red and pink flowers, respectively Interesting additions to a thyme garden
T. Broussonetii Broussoneti Thyme 5-12″ /6 Rose-red flowers Pine scented leaves;
native to Morocco
T. camphoratus Camphor Thyme 6-12″/6 Pinkish flowers, grayish leaves Camphor scented, native to Portugal and thus requires am mild, dry climate
T. x citriodorus Lemon Thyme 4-12″/6 Lemon scent translates to food; great for fish and chicken
T. x citriodorus
cltvs: ‘Argenteus’; ‘Silver Queen’ and ‘Aureus’
10″/6 Silver, silver and golden foliage, respectively Good foils to darker-leaved varieties. Lemon flavor not as pronounced
T. vulgaris Common Thyme 4″/5 White/pinkish flowers and gray leaves Great for planting between flagstones
T. vulgaris
cultivars: ‘Argenteus’, ‘Aureus’, ‘Fragrantissimus’, ‘Roseus’
Common Thyme
Varieties: Silver, Gold, Fragrant and Rose
4″/5 or 6 Silver leaved, golden-colored, very fragrant or rose-colored flowers, respectively Interesting cultivars of common thyme, valuable for special leaf color, bloom or fragrance

Some Favorite Thyme Recipes:

Although thyme is wonderful on its own, its true calling is its ability to pair with other herbs and meld the flavors. People often consider thyme and bay twins, so common is their combination. Thyme goes well in chowders and is an essential ingredient in most stews. It has an affinity for almost all fish and shellfish, as well as pork, veal and chicken. You can pair most all vegetables with thyme. And don’t overlook thyme’s ability to pair with fruits, apples and pears especially.

Use fresh thyme whenever you can, but if you must use dried, make sure that you add it to the dish early in the cooking process so it has the time and moisture to develop its flavor. Although I always advocate the use of fresh herbs, you must use only dried herbs for this rub: Mix 1 tablespoon each of dried thyme, dried oregano and chili powder with 1 teaspoon of garlic powder. Rub it on steaks or hamburgers before grilling; or rub it on a pork loin before roasting. The resulting gravy is wonderful.

MIXED GREENS SALAD WITH GRILLED PEARS
This elegant salad is perfect served after the main course. (Especially an autumn dinner of pork loin.)
4 cups mixed greens, washed, dried, and ripped into bite-sized pieces, or 4 cups premixed mesclun
2 pears, cored and sliced thin
4 tablespoons toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons Stilton, crumbled
Dressing:
1/2 cup pear nectar
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
1/4 cup vegetable oil
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat the grill. Grill the pears over medium heat until they just begin to get soft and slightly brown, and set aside. Divide the greens between six plates. Arrange the pears on top of the greens and sprinkle with the toasted pecans and the Stilton.

To make the dressing, combine the pear nectar, vinegars and fresh thyme in a bowl. Whisk in the oil; add salt and pepper to taste. Divide the dressing between the six plates and garnish with fresh thyme sprigs. Serves 6.

CREAMED ONIONS
2 pounds small white onions, unpeeled
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

In a vegetable steamer set over boiling water, steam the onions for about 30 minutes or until tender. Remove the skins by pinching the onion at the root end and allowing the onion to pop out the other end.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the flour and cook for about 2 minutes or until the mixture resembles oatmeal. Add the milk and cream, whisking to blend. Heat the mixture, whisking constantly until it thickens and begins to boil. Remove from heat and add the onions and 1 tablespoon of the thyme. Transfer to an ovenproof dish.

In a small saute pan, melt the butter. Add the bread crumbs and remaining thyme and cook over medium heat until the bread crumbs are golden. Spread bread crumbs over onion mixture. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until sauce bubbles though the bread crumbs. Serves 6 to 8.

APPLE-THYME PIE
3 lbs. Granny Smith apples
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup lightly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon freshly chopped thyme
Pastry for a two-crust 9-inch pie
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk

Core, peel and cut apples in eights. In a large deep skillet, heat butter until foam subsides. Add apples and cook over medium heat, turning occasionally until they are bout three-quarters of the way done – about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with sugar and brown sugar and cook about 1 minute, turning to coat with sugar. Sprinkle with thyme and mix gently. Remove from heat.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Divide pastry in half. On floured surface roll out one half into a 12-inch circle. Fit into a 9-inch pie plate. Fill with apple mixture. Roll remaining pastry into a 12-inch circle. Arrange it over apples, turn edges under and press together to make an even rim. Flute edges.

Mix together egg and milk and brush over top of pie. Cut vents in top. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 375 degrees and bake 25 minutes longer or until crust is nicely browned. Cool on wire rack.

LOBSTER AND MUSSEL STEW
This recipe is a wonderful example of thyme’s ability to pair with shellfish.
Two 1- to 11/2-pound live Maine lobsters
3 pounds mussels, scrubbed and debearded (see note)
3 tablespoons butter
2 shallots, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried
4 medium red-skinned potatoes, scrubbed, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
4 cups half and half
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
chopped fresh parsley for garnish


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