Growing Thyme

One of my favorite memories is of walking up a sloping lawn in the Haute Savoie region of France and smelling the air. The grass was full of naturalized thyme plants in bloom. The next day I saw the lawn mowed with a little tractor and the air buzzed with the heady scent of the herb and angry bees.

Thyme plants require two things: full sun (6 hours plus) and excellent drainage. They do not need rich soil, prefer no fertilizer, and will reward neglect with fragrant and delicious leaves and flowers.

There are many different species of thyme: here are four I love best.

Common thyme has a misleading botanical name: Thymus vulgaris. So unfair. There is nothing vulgar about this best-known of thymes and the work horse of the kitchen herb community. I have enjoyed its leaves in winter, its tiny flowers in late spring. It is always there for me and livens up stews, pizzas, roasts and soups. I have used bunches of thyme, steeped in boiling water, to sooth an aching throat, and have picked the 10" flowering stems to add to small posies of flowers for the table. In short, it performs.

Lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus) is heavy on the citrus scent, and I use it sparingly in savory cooking. It lends itself well to teas and tisanes: Add a sprig to your favorite tea for a subtle flavor, or a small handful to boiling water in a teapot and allow it to steep before drinking. Lemon thyme leaves added to cookie and cake mixes are a fragrant alternative to lemon zest. Sometimes I put a bunch in my bathwater, where it perfumes the steam with its freshness.

Woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosis) is a creeping, furry-leafed silver thyme which makes the best outdoor carpet I have seen. It invites you to run your hand over its tiny leaves and gives off that unmistakable thyme scent when you do. It is a great groundcover for in between stepping stones or for shallow planters as an interest-point. It is an alternative for lawns in areas of full sun, superb drainage, and where very little or light foot traffic is expected.

Finally, for cuteness, who can resist the tiny Elfin thyme? Thymus serpyllum "Elfin". As its name suggests, it is minute and forms small flat mats in sun or tiny hummocks if it has a little shade. This is the only thyme I know that will tolerate some shade. Plant it on its own in a pot and allow it to creep over the edge, use it in stone walls to fill cracks, or tuck between stepping stones.

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