Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
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Thymes -- aromatic little herbs that warm our hearts

    The essence of thymes is fragrance. Breathing in their rich aromas we are refreshed and filled with joy. Even were they inodorous, their beauty and ease of growth would make us cherish these wonderfully varied miniature shrubs. It is a treat just to recall the familiar warm odor of French Thyme used in cooking, and an adventure in sensory amazement to sample the many other scrumptious delights: camphor, caraway, coconut, eucalyptus, lavender, lemon, licorice, mint, nutmeg, orange, oregano, pepper, pine, pineapple, savory, turpentine and varnish! Others smell so strange that describing their scent is impossible, leaving us sputtering "sharp" "hot" or "spicy."
    Admittedly, the bewildering multitude of scented geraniums outshine the thymes. But for gardeners without space or taste to collect and tend the Pelargonium clan, thymes offer an easy way to enrich the olfactory value of the landscape. Not only do thymes lend perfume, they are also adaptable to most designs and require little upkeep.
    From the frigid shores of Greenland all the way to Japan they grow, numbering well over a hundred species. Most reside in the Mediterranean region, including nearly all of the commonly cultivated varieties -- of the two dozen kinds I have grown I think every one is Euro-Mediterranean. The thymes are so variable and have been so extensively hybridized that scientists despair at correctly sorting and naming their many manifestations. That some cultivars are placed under different species by various students is an academic point. Gardeners can enjoy 'Coconut' Thyme whether it's a hybrid or not. And Silver Thyme loses no lustre for being variously sold as a selection of Thymus vulgaris, T. Serpyllum, or T. x citriodorus!
    The genus Thymus is in the mint family (LABIATÆ) and as such is allied to the savories, lavenders, sages and so forth. All are evergreen and more or less fragrant. Thymes can carpet the earth in flat, spreading mats, are be miniature bushes two feet tall and wide. Their leaves average a quarter-inch long, ranging from only an eighth to about three-forths of an inch. Magnifying them reveals fascinating drops of resinous oil amid silvery hairs. The flowers are pink, purplish, red or white. Bees cannot get enough of them: thyme honey is a lipsmacking delicacy prized by beekeepers. The earliest thymes tend to commence blooming in late April, the last peter-out in early September; they peak mid-May to late July.
    They usually thrive in sunny, exposed sites, where dry, rocky, poor soil supports little else. Anyone who has watched a precious thyme get shaded-out in a regular garden bed knows what I mean: thymes don't take well to competition from stronger plants. If they cannot grow fast enough to keep in the sun, they decline and perish. Shade is their enemy.
    Rich, moist soil, too, enables weeds, rot or other plants, wild or cultivated, to conquer them. This means we should give thymes sunny, sandy, well-drained soil. Whether the texture is sandy or loamy, and the balance acidic or alkaline, thymes grow OK, but sand and lime are best.
    Sun-lovers though they be, don't despair if your garden is essentially shady. You can still attempt a Lemon Thyme in a pot. This kind needs less sunshine than most and the pot can be moved variously for optimal light. Whether a high light level or not, minimize watering your thymes: when drier, they grow slower and concentrate their essential oils more than do the rank, lush, watered thymes; they are also more mildew and rot-resistant.
    A bit of sandy soil in a sunny spot, then, is all that is needed. Most of us, even apartment dwellers, have no trouble finding some room for thyme. I've never heard anyone complain of having too much. Any excess growth can be used as seasoning, given away or composted.
    Thymes are of that happy category of plants which are of multiple uses. In fact they are so useful that to detail every virtue would require an unseemly long article. Let us therefore pass over the medicinal potency as a hookworm cure, cough suppressant, etc; ignore the honey-plant role; and not prescribe culinary applications. That leaves thymes for their use as an ornamental groundcover and their stellar place in the fragrance landscape.

    Creeping Thyme
    To cover soil between bricks, or larger expanses around stepping stones, or in rockeries, thymes are frequently the best choice. Of the many alternatives such as moss, babies' tears, creeping Jenny, blue star creeper, stonecrop, Corsican mint, grass, Herniaria, Sagina -- none so perfectly combine such low habit of growth, pleasing appearance year-round, low-maintenance, foot-traffic tolerance, and their delicate fragrance. The only thing "wrong" with creeping thymes is that they are rather old hat, being so often chosen for such work, and taken for granted as we trod them underfoot.
    Common or not, creeping thymes prove practically perfect natural carpets. A thyme carpet done properly is amazingly rewarding. Make one yourself by first providing a well-drained, sterile (free of weed seeds anyway) plot of soil, preferably with exposure to the south or southwest. If your soil is contaminated with weed seeds, discard it or firmly cover it with at least an inch of sand or gravel. Broadcast creeping thyme seed or -- as most of us do -- set out little starts. They'll take hold quickly and spread.
    The first year or so the carpet may be thin and will be ever so low, hugging the earth. After a few years, depending on the variety, growing conditions and help or hindrance from humans, the carpet will be dense and will have spread to an area of many square feet unless it was a dwarf cultivar or was cut back. It is oddly fast-growing yet rarely what most would call weedy. Some stronger versions can run mad in alpine or rock gardens full of dainty little pets. But only a small number of us have such rarefied specialty gardens.
    The creepers tolerate some foot-traffic, but must not be walked upon when frozen in winter, and should be trod gently when in bloom and bees are about. Some people have made whole garden seats of earth covered with creeping thyme. Trim the thyme periodically to contain it in planter beds and to keep it off attractive stones. A few tasteful thyme "waterfalls" cascading down raised beds, over pot edges, or down sunny banks, and allowed to splay out on pebbly ground, is a fun employment.
    Just as an indoor carpet needs occasional vacuuming and stain removal, thyme rugs require some care. Remove fallen leaves lest they shade it. Pluck weeds that sprout in it. Animal urine browns it and when this disgusting thing happens, rinse the affected part with a jet of hose water and then sprinkle a bit of lime to counteract the acidity. The thyme recovers. During the coldest winters, some "tendrils" hanging over the edges of walls may be killed and need trimming. If your garden is formal and tidy, such occasional blemishes will detract considerably more so than in an informal or naturalistic landscape. Overall, with minimal grooming, these living carpets prove beautiful, reliable performers year in, year out. If they ever grow ratty or you change your mind and want something else, they are easily rejuvenated or replaced.
    Greenleaf, grayleaf, now even goldleaf creeping thymes are available. The flowers, too, are variously colored, and some scarcely or don't flower at all. In height, flower-time and fragrance they differ. Their names are confusingly mixed up. How does one choose!?
    First, note that while thyme enthusiasts classify thymes as bushes or creepers, more than a few thymes are intermediate. If we seek a perfectly flat mat without vertical flowerstalks our choices are few, especially if some rare and newer varieties are excluded from consideration for being so hard to obtain. The two most common flat mat creepers are the greenleaf with pink flowers, and the woolly or gray kind with very sparse flower production (also pink).
    The green has been called Thymus Serpyllum for decades, and more recently has been graced with the unwieldy name T. præcox arcticus; it is the usual "Mother of Thyme" of U.S. nurseries. The gray or woolly thyme has been called the 'Lanuginosus' cultivar of the greenleaf and has also been called T. pseudolanuginosus. It's not as bad as it sounds: there are two common creepers, a green and a gray.
    Variations on the theme of green are many and include 'Coccineus' (= 'Splendens') with red flowers, 'Albus' and 'White Moss' with white blossoms, 'Annie Hall' with pink flowers and superior fragrance, the gold-variegated 'Mayfair' (= 'Aureus'), and the compact dwarfs 'Elfin' and 'Minus'. 'Hall's woolly' is a much less flat than regular woolly Thyme, has larger leaves, and is more floriferous, but not so vividly silvery. All these are hardy to winter cold (USDA Zones 2-9).
    So much for the familiar and quite prostrate creepers. A second class exists too. Most T. pulegioides creepers grow taller, are often more fragrant, and are less inured to severe cold. Some require a mowing or sheering after their blooms fade, while most T. præcox arcticus selections admiringly "take care of themselves." In any case, mingling closely more than one kind can lead to a confusingly tangled carpet, looking awkward as a parti-colored privet hedge.
    Like it or not, the thymes, both creeping and otherwise, are understandably disorganized in nurseries and sold under varying names. Cultivars usually sold as T. pulegioides forms include 'Pink Chintz' with late-summer blooms on bright green leaves, 'White Magic' and 'Foster Flower' (white flowers), 'Kermisinus' with rosy-purple flowers, the yellow-green 'Gold Dust' and both 'Coconut' and 'Oregano-Scented' thymes.
    A third class of creeping thymes is limited to a few rare but highly distinctive clones. They boast extra-long leaves, up to three-forths of an inch, and make coarse, mounded carpets not so good for walking upon. They're savory-scented and have pale purple flowers. Names used for these include Thymus Marschallianus, T. glabrescens loevyanus, T. pannonicus, T. lanicaulis, 'Long-leaf Gray' and 'Linear-leaf Lilac.'

    Thyme for the Kitchen
    The classic culinary thyme, of rich and famous savor, is unhappily named Thymus vulgaris. It is sold as French, Garden, Common or Greek Thyme, and its dwarf or compact versions go under still other names. Some of its hybrids are also sold under these names. Indeed, the "real thing" is relatively uncommon! It is a stiff, wiry little bush a foot or more tall with narrow, dryish leaves. The floppier 'Broadleaf English' and the Silver Thyme ('Argenteus') are hybrids which outnumber it and lack its intensely sharp, hot taste.
    Authentic T. vulgaris is completely drought-hardy and its leaves lack the tender succulence of many of the other kinds, so therefore are less valuable to be plucked fresh for nibbling or salads. However, the leaves pack great potency of flavor, so adding some to salad dressing can be an exciting bonus. Not to mention their tremendous value for flavoring meat, eggs, sauces, etc. All cooks will want the real thyme, not merely a diluted substitute hybrid.
    Of course, other thymes are also valuable as seasonings. Lemon, Caraway, the Savory- and Oregano-scented, as well as rarer kinds are surely worth having close by the kitchen for ready access to fresh sprigs.

    Thyme for Fragrance
    To my liking the best thyme for fragrance is Caraway, T. Herba-barona, from Corsica and Sardinia. Could only one species be in my garden, this would be it. Hundreds of years ago it was imported to continental Europe as a splendid seasoning for beef. Another name for it is Seedcake Thyme. Though of heavenly fragrance, it is none of the best looking. Classed as a creeping thyme, it really seems to have higher aspirations: instead of contentedly being completely prostrate and forming a dense mat (which is the ideal) it insists on arching its red stems and hopping about in a sparse manner, making a loose, informal groundcover usually at least three inches high, very dark colored. It is truly a joy when its deep rosy flowers cover it in June. Practically identical but reputedly lower and paler-flowered is its similar cultivar 'Nutmeg.' However the name Nutmeg Thyme is also applied to a weakly scented creeper which reminds me of Coconut Thyme. A yellow-edged cultivar has weaker fragrance and to my mind is deservedly rare. In short -- the plain old Caraway Thyme is better than its "associates."
    Most famous of the scented thymes is Lemon, T. x citriodorus. This variable assemblage includes bright green mounded bushes a foot tall, spreading yellow-variegated mats, and every form in between. They're all lemon-scented and indispensable for seasoning. Commonest is the partly yellow, partly reverted-to-green 'Aureus.' The flowers are less showy than those of most thymes, and the plants do better with partial shade and a less dry soil than the baking sites favored by most thymes.
    The Lemon Thymes' great value is in their hardiness and year-round availability. Lemon Verbena (Lippia citriodora or Aloysia triphylla) and Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon citratus) cannot be plucked fresh from the outdoor garden in cold winters. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) comes close, but its leaves are hairy, so less agreeable in salads, and it can be weedy. Moreover, both the 'Gold Edge' variegated and the golden Lemon Thymes ('Aureus' and 'Clear Gold') brighten-up the landscape with their cheerfully light-colored foliage. All they need is periodic harvesting/grooming to be kept neatly compact and thriving. Beware their reverting to solid green, however.
    Is lemon too sour for your taste? Try orange. There is 'Orange Balsam' Thyme, a bush sort that blossoms in May. Its relative rarity is certainly due to its being less pretty and vigorous. It is no less hardy, and its mild, sweet orange smell is a great treat. Also, some races of the creeping T. cæspititius (= T. azoricus) are orange-scented -- but have also been described as smelling like oregano, like licorice, etc! Let the buyer beware, then, lest a weakly aromatic plant be purchased; smell first, buy later. And remember, scent is strongest at blossom time.
    Caraway Thyme, Lemon, and Orange are fully hardy with us. Camphor Thyme (T. camphoratus), however, is a more sensitive herb that does not consistently overwinter for us. But it is worth growing anyway, by being taken indoors, or protected, or renewed annually by cuttings. It hails from southern Portugal and is an endearing pure green, petite, compact upright bush without a trace of laxity. Most seen are 4 to 6 inches, but older ones reach a foot tall. In nature the flowers are rose, yet cultivated stock rarely blossoms or doesn't at all. Its scent is piercing, rich and heady like a medicine. Other than being tender, its only problem is its frightful brittleness; an accidental sweep with abroom or misplaced foot can readily snap it.
    Other thymes mimicking the herbal essences of savory, oregano, lavender and rosemary, are nowhere near as well known as the plants they resemble in odor, but can be equally valuable in the garden, especially the creeping kinds. For to stroll on an herbal path, stepping now on a sharp penetrating pungency, then on a sweetly mild one, is pure delight. Lacing a gravel path with thymes, Roman chamomile, pennyroyal and other low-growing mints, is too rarely done. Again and again we use these fragrant beauties as borders and edging instead of placing them where our feet cannot help liberating their exhilarating fragrance!

    Thyme for Flowers
    Naturally, most of us associate thyme with evergreen groundcovers or as a seasoning. Rightly so. Still, it may be a pleasant surprise to learn that some thymes are far showier in floral beauty than most. Additionally, knowing the precise season of bloom of the various ordinary kinds enables us to design their placement most advantageously. A handy chart of flowering periods is given for 22 kinds on page 76 of Landscaping with Herbs (Timber Press, 1987) by Chehalis, Washington resident James Adams.
    Adams says the showiest bush thyme flowers are those of the Moroccan T. Broussonetii, with "the most glorious flowers of any thyme." (p. 32) It is pine-scented and forms an upright little bush 8 to 12 inches tall, with long narrow leaves and large flowers the color of fireweed or reddish. Alas, it is primarily a warmth-needing plant, so must be coddled in winter over most of North America. Nor is it easily located in nurseries. Possibly giving it superbly draining soil and a completely sunny exposure would help it through the winter. I am not likely to try it since it has merely a blah odor and flavor.
    Another similarly tender, but choice thyme, is Mastic Thyme (T. Mastichina), also called Spanish Marjoram. It's a 10 to 16 inch tall erect bush from Spain, Portugal and north Africa, bearing showy whitish flower puffs late May through mid-June, with an odor keen and strong. To me it smells like heavily concentrated pineapple.
    Silver Thyme ('Argenteus') is hardy, deservedly popular and frequently planted for its year-round foliage appeal -- ornamentally equal to any flowering thymes. Its own pinkish flowers are nothing special, but clipped often, it forms a low, shimmering tuft, irresistibly drawing visitors' eyes. Its bright, refreshingly different color blends effectively with most any plant, though the combination of silver and golden thyme is weak at best and usually trite if not repulsive. Silver Thyme shows most strikingly with companions such as Lobelia Erinus or Lithodora diffusa, whose dark foliage and blue flowers go well with it.

    Taking care of thyme; Troubleshooting
    In brief: trim your thymes periodically and don't overwater them. This keeps them tidy, fresh and healthy. Cut them while they are actively growing and soon the scars will be completely hidden by new greenery. Don't trim so late in summer or fall that the new growth has insufficient time to make a dense cover to protect the plant through winter. (If you want to dry some sprigs for storage, the ideal time to cut them is on a morning right at flowering, after the dew is evaporated but before the hot afternoon sun irradiates the plants.)
    Thyme never groomed will gradually become scraggly, leggy, sparse, spotty or otherwise unsightly. If you're facing such a time, and can't stand it, simply cut it back hard when the first new greenery starts in spring. It will resprout and come back better than before.
    It is difficult not overwatering when thyme is planted next to plants requiring more moisture. If this is the case, try to get the water into the soil rather than onto the foliage. Powdery mildew, rots and the like abominations are caused by too much moisture on the leaves and/or soil. This usually means you must change your watering practices (i.e. less), or the soil mix itself (i.e. grittier), or indeed move the offended thyme to a sunnier, drier site. Fungicides and the like simply address symptoms of stress, rather than correcting the cause.
    Drought-damage is rare in thymes but occurs in exceptional summers with some shallowly-rooted creepers, primarily those on steep, sandy, southwestern-exposed hillsides. It requires an immediate watering that thoroughly soaks the ground, and, if it is recurring, a re-examination of the particular thyme and its site. Some kinds are less resistant than drought than others. Sorry I cannot spell-out the preferences of each; nobody has done an exclusive study on this subject. Generally, however, if you have an exceptionally dry site, the smaller, grayer-leaved kinds such as true T. vulgaris or the woolly creeper, have an advantage. Another way to ease drought stress is to plant your thymes near stones and rocks, so that the roots can delve into cooler, moist areas. Bare soil offers no respite from broiling sun.
    What about squirrels? They rip ugly holes in carpets of thyme, inserting walnuts or digging out choice bulbs! Try considering them a necessary evil, and dismiss them with a dolorous sigh: what can't be cured must be endured. This philosophic approach is generally easier than trying to stop the little rascals.
    Winter-kill of the tips occurs with bush thymes in our severest winters, and can be dealt with by cutting the brown away in spring and applying a bit of liquid manure or fish fertilizer. To minimize winter damage, try a protective cover in the hardest freezes. It also helps to avoid trouble by acquiring your thymes from growers in your own region.
    What it largely boils down to is that the right thyme in the right place makes for optimal performance and minimal troubles. So you might try moving your flagging thymes from site to site until they thrive. Along the same line, a thyme that does well for years but then declines, can often be rejuvenated by a transplanting. Layers, division, cuttings or seed are all viable in certain cases. The propagation of thymes is true simplicity.

    Prioritize your thyme
    Thymes are sufficiently diverse that gardeners can choose kinds to fit most schemes. And if you don't have a scheme so much the better -- just fit one in where there's a bit of sunny earth. As noted, the main categories are landscape groundcovers, miniature shrubs for fragrance or flowers, and the culinary kinds which lend both perfume in the garden and spice in the kitchen. Formal or informal, rockeries or kitchen gardens, thymes can easily be attractively added to. They need little space, no highly specialized soil mixture, are simple to care for, and repay acquaintance every time you gaze upon them or catch a whiff of them. They are thrifty, highly varied, lovable and suited to any gardens save woodland or bog ones. You can get one or two varieties or dozens. In the Language of Flowers they symbolize activity, courage and thriftiness. Waste no time in trying some!

(Originally written in 1989 and published in the Island Grower magazine.)


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Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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