Thymus serpyllum (Breckland Thyme)

Thymus serpyllum, commonly called Breckland Thyme, Creeping Thyme or Wild Thyme, is an aromatic, evergreen shrub with creeping stems that form a ground-covering carpet. It has small blue-green leaves and clusters of deep pink to purple flowers.

It is a moderately drought-tolerant shrub native to a wide geographical area: Europe, North Africa and most of Asia. This thyme is the one that extends most to the north. The others are more limited to the Mediterranean basin.


Quick Overview

TYPE

Type Shrub

HEIGHT&WIDTH

thymus_serpyllum height and width

BLOOM TIME

Thymus serpyllum bloom time

SUNLIGHT

full sun

HARDINESS

hardiness (-15ºC / 5º F)

DROUGHT TOLERANCE

drought tolerance aprox 2 months

ORIGIN

origin mediterranean basin

Breckland Thyme scientific name

  • Botanical name:  Thymus serpyllum  (TY-muss ser-PIE-lum)
  • Family: Lamiaceae (lay-mee-AY-see-ee)
  • Common name: Breckland Thyme, Creeping Thyme, Wild Thyme, Mother of Thyme
NameMeaning
ThymusThere are several versions of the origin of the name:
1- From the Greek word thymon meaning smoke or to fumigate. Related to its use as an incense for its fragrance.
2- From the Greek word thumos meaning courage. Thyme symbolised bravery.
3- From the Greek word thymos, meaning perfume. Because of its intense fragrance
serpyllumFrom the Latin word serpo, meaning to crawl, to creep and related to the plant´s creeping habit.

How to identify Thymus serpyllum

Thymus serpyllum shrub (Breckland thyme, Wild thyme)

Shrub

Compact, aromatic, evergreen woody shrub with a mat-forming shape. It tolerates some foot traffic and releases a pleasant fragrance when it is stepped on.

It gradually spreads into a dense mass as new roots grow from the stems’ nodes as they touch the ground. 

It has tiny green leaves and is covered with clusters of pink to purple flowers.

The shrub has an average height of  1 to 5 cm (0.4 to 1.9 in), depending on the amount of trampling. The width ranges from  25 a 30 cm ( 0.8 to 1 ft)

Thymus serpyllum stem(Breckland thyme, Wild thyme)

Stem

 

The stems are spreading with brown-copper colour and are hairy.

Like other thymes, the young stems are squared but become rounder and woody at the base as they age.

They have opposite leaves at each node.

Clusters of flowers appear on the terminal part of the stem, but there are also flowerless stems which are characteristic of the Breckland Thyme.

Thymus serpyllum leaf (Breckland thyme, Wild thyme)

Leaf

The leaf is aromatic, glossy, blue-green and almost hairless.

The shape is elliptical with a rounded tip and flat margin. It has a prominent central vein and is nearly stalkless.

The leaf is 4 to 6 mm (0.1 to 0.2 in) long and 2 to 4 mm (0.07 to 0.1 in) wide.

Thymus serpyllum flower (Breckland thyme, Wild thyme)

Flower

The inflorescence has a globose or spike form and varies between 10 to 15 mm  (0.4 to 0.6 in) in diameter. It is composed of tiny flowers in several whorls around the stem.

The flowers are deep pink to purple with a fused corolla. They are two-lipped, the upper lip has 2 lobes almost fused into one, and the lower lip has 3 lobes.

The 4 stamens are pink and stick out from inside the corolla.

Abundant pink to purple clusters of flowers appear on upright stems in the summer.

Thymus serpyllum usage

Ornamental

The Breckland thyme forms a very pretty carpet of dense blue-green foliage and abundant clusters of pink to purple flowers. 

It is perfect to sprawl from a pot or a low wall, to fill in crevices of stone paths or as an alternative to a lawn where there is only occasional trampling.

It also looks lovely in rock and gravel gardens and is commonly used as a fragrant ground cover.

It can be planted in a mixture with other ground thymes creating a beautiful contrast with the different shades of foliage and colours of flowers.

Medicinal

Since ancient times, Thymus serpyllum has been used as a domestic remedy to treat digestive, respiratory and skin diseases.

Breckland thyme essential oil is used in contemporary medicine for its pharmacological properties: antioxidative, antimicrobial, and anti cancerogenic (source).

Cosmetics

The essential oil is used for cleansing and deodorant products.

Culinary

Although the leaves are edible, this plant is seldomly used for cooking.

Biodiversity

The Breckland thyme is very attractive to bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects. It is also an important source of nutrition for caterpillars.

Cultural

Thyme symbolises love and courage. The knight´s cloaks and tunics would have thyme leaves embroidered by their loved ones.

Greeks believed that thyme would bring courage and motivation and used thyme sprigs in baths and the clothes of knights before battles.

Other uses

The dried flowers of Wild thyme are used to be placed in cupboards and drawers to repel moths from clothing.

Wild Thyme is used as a ground cover for firebreak zones surrounding buildings. They provide very little fuel for fire, and so stops its progress.

Thymus serpyllum habitat

Breckland Thyme grows naturally on dry stony areas, open sandy heaths, grasslands, roadsides and riversides.

How to care for Thymus serpyllum

Cold exposure

This thyme is very hardy and can tolerate frost and temperatures down to -15ºc (5ºF). However, it will need winter protection until it is fully established. Add some mulch to protect the roots from low temperatures and the foliage from the wet soil.

Sun exposure

This plant needs full sun exposure, at least 6 hours per day.

Soil

It likes poor, well-drained stony soils. It thrives best in neutral and alkaline soils but can also tolerate mildly acidic soils.

Watering

Breckland Thyme is moderately drought tolerant and can go for some time without water (about 2 months if the temperature is not too hot).

If you want to maintain its beautiful thick carpet appearance, you will need to water it once a week during the summer. The roots need to be kept in moist soil by not waterlogged. This shrub dislikes wet conditions.
To preserve the soil´s moisture, you should add mulch around the root area of the Thyme (but not too close to the base). Wood chips and gravel are good options for mulching.

Other conditions

It is quite robust and tolerates occasional foot traffic.

Can tolerate strong winds but not maritime exposure.

The best time to plant is during Autumn, so it will have all winter to develop its roots.

How to prune Thymus serpyllum

Like other thymes, this shrub needs to be pruned a couple of times during the year to remain vigorous and maintain its compactness.

Ideally, you should give it a light prune in the spring and then another prune in late summer after flowering. Be careful to always prune above the leaf, as the stems will not regrow if it is cut back too hard.

Thyme should be harvested just before flowering when it has the highest quantity of essential oil. 

How to propagate Thymus serpyllum

This thyme can be propagated by seeds, cuttings, layering and division.

Propagation by seed

Sow in spring in a cold frame or in autumn in a greenhouse. Do not cover or barely cover the seeds, as they need light to germinate. The seeds usually germinate in 2 to 4 weeks at around 15ºC (60ºF).

Plant the seeds in individual pots as soon as they are strong enough to handle. Keep them in the greenhouse or cold frame to grow a bit more. Plant them in their final location after the last frost in spring or in autumn.

When transplanting, pinch the tip of each stem to stimulate more branching to create a bushy form.

Propagation by cuttings

Thyme is easy to propagate from cuttings.

Semi-ripe cuttings can be taken from mid-summer to early autumn. Take a 5 to 8 cm (2.7 to 4 in) cutting with a heel or at a node from the current year’s growth. Roots will form within a few weeks. Semi-ripe cuttings can be placed in a cold frame over winter. 

Plant them out in late spring after the last expected frosts.
Basal cuttings of young shoots can be taken in the spring. Roots will form in a frame (to maintain moisture) during the summer, and the plant will be ready to plant in the final spot in autumn.

Propagation by layering

Wild thyme is especially easy to propagate by layering. Like other ground-covering thymes, it has horizontal stems that root when in contact with the ground.

Bend the stem down, hold it to the ground with a peg or rock, and cover it with soil.

Propagation by division

This plant can be divided in spring or autumn. 

Dig up the plant and carefully divide it into 2 or 3 smaller sections. Each section should have a robust root structure.

The divisions with larger roots can be planted directly in their final position in the garden. 

The smaller divisions with less developed roots will first need to be potted and grown in a cold frame or greenhouse until they are strong enough to be planted in the garden.

Other Thymes you may also like

Sources

Sources of information used for this article

Internet

Article from Jardin Sec

Article from NC Extension Gardener

Volume XII from Flora Iberica