Ancient Egyptians used thyme for embalming. The ancient Greeks used it in their baths and burnt it as incense in their temples, believing it was a source of courage. The spread of thyme throughout Europe was thought to be due to the Romans, as they used it to purify their rooms and to "give an aromatic flavour to cheese and liqueurs". In the European Middle Ages, the herb was placed beneath pillows to aid sleep and ward off nightmares. In this period, women would also often give knights and warriors gifts that included thyme leaves, as it was believed to bring courage to the bearer. Thyme was also used as incense and placed on coffins during funerals, as it was supposed to assure passage into the next life.
The name of the genus Thymallus first given to grayling (T. thymallus) described in the 1758 edition of Systema Naturae by Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus originates from the faint smell of the herb thyme, which emanates from the flesh.
Thyme is best cultivated in a hot, sunny location with well-drained soil. It is generally planted in the spring, and thereafter grows as a perennial. It can be propagated by seed, cuttings, or by dividing rooted sections of the plant. It tolerates drought well. The plants can take deep freezes and are found growing wild on mountain highlands. Along the Riviera, it is found from sea level and up to 800m.
Thyme is sold both fresh and dried. The fresh form is more flavourful, but also less convenient; storage life is rarely more than a week. While summer-seasonal, fresh greenhouse thyme is often available year round.
Fresh thyme is commonly sold in bunches of sprigs. A sprig is a single stem snipped from the plant. It is composed of a woody stem with paired leaf or flower clusters ("leaves") spaced 1⁄2 to 1" apart. A recipe may measure thyme by the bunch (or fraction thereof), or by the sprig, or by the tablespoon or teaspoon. Dried thyme is widely used in Armenia (called Urc) in teas.
Depending on how it is used in a dish, the whole sprig may be used (e.g. in a bouquet garni), or the leaves removed and the stems discarded. Usually when a recipe specifies "bunch" or "sprig", it means the whole form; when it specifies spoons it means the leaves. It is perfectly acceptable to substitute dried for whole thyme.
Leaves may be removed from stems either by scraping with the back of a knife, or by pulling through the fingers or tines of a fork.
Thyme retains its flavour on drying better than many other herbs. Substitution is often more complicated than that because recipes can specify sprigs, and sprigs can vary in yield of leaves.
Oil of thyme, the essential oil of common thyme (Thymus vulgaris), contains 20–54% thymol. Thyme essential oil also contains a range of additional compounds, such as p-cymene, myrcene, borneol and linalool. Thymol, an antiseptic, is the main active ingredient in various commercially produced mouthwashes such as Listerine. Before the advent of modern antibiotics, oil of thyme was used to medicate bandages. Thymol has also been shown to be effective against various fungi that commonly infect toenails. Thymol can also be found as the active ingredient in some all-natural, alcohol-free hand sanitizers.
Important species and cultivars
- Thymus citriodorus — various lemon thymes, orange thymes, lime thyme.
- Thymus herba-barona (caraway thyme) is used both as a culinary herb and a ground cover, and has a very strong caraway scent due to the chemical carvone.
- Thymus praecox (mother of thyme, wild thyme), cultivated as an ornamental
- Thymus pseudolanuginosus (woolly thyme) is not a culinary herb, but is grown as a ground cover.
- Thymus serpyllum (wild thyme, creeping thyme) is an important nectar source plant for honeybees. All thyme species are nectar sources, but wild thyme covers large areas of droughty, rocky soils in southern Europe (Both Greece and Malta are especially famous for wild thyme honey) and North Africa, as well as in similar landscapes in the Berkshire and Catskill Mountains of the northeastern US. The lowest-growing of the widely used thyme, it is good for walkways.
- Thymus vulgaris (common thyme, English thyme, summer thyme, winter thyme, French thyme, or garden thyme) is a commonly used culinary herb. It also has medicinal uses. Common thyme is a Mediterranean perennial which is best suited to well-drained soils and full sun.
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