Thymus vulgaris (Common Thyme)

Thymus vulgaris, usually called Thyme, Common Thyme, or Garden Thyme, is a small, intensely aromatic evergreen subshrub with a low cushion form. It has small grey-green leaves and rounded terminal spikes of tiny pale pink flowers.

It is a drought-tolerant shrub native to the Mediterranean basin, specifically to Southern Europe in Portugal, Spain and Italy.

It is the most cultivated Thyme in the world due to its numerous culinary, medicinal, and ornamental uses.


Quick Overview

TYPE

HEIGHT&WIDTH

thymus_vulgaris height and width

BLOOM TIME

Thymus vulgaris bloom time

SUNLIGHT

full sun

HARDINESS

hardiness (-15ºC / 5º F)

DROUGHT TOLERANCE

drought tolerance aprox 4 months

ORIGIN

origin mediterranean basin

Common Thyme scientific name

  • Botanical name: Thymus vulgaris(TY-muss  vul-GAIR-iss)
  • Family: Lamiaceae (lay-mee-AY-see-ee)
  • Common name: Thyme, Common Thyme, Garden Thyme, German 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
vulgarisThe Latin word for Common.

How to identify Thymus vulgaris

Thymus vulgaris shrub (Common Thyme, Garden Thyme)

Shrub

Small, aromatic evergreen subshrub with a cushion shape. It is densely branched with creeping or erect stems full of small grey-green leaves and topped with rounded spikes of tiny pale-pink flowers.

In case of prolonged drought, the foliage can become partially deciduous.

The shrub has an average height of 25 cm (0.8 ft) and a width of about 30 cm ( 1 ft)

Thymus vulgaris stem (Common Thyme, Garden Thyme)

Stem

The stems are upright or spreading, reddish-green, hairy, and woody at the base.

They are squared, with opposite leaves at each node, with tufts of smaller foliage in the leaf axils. 

Flower heads appear on the terminal part of the stem.  

Thymus vulgaris leaf (Common Thyme, Garden Thyme)

Leaf

The leaf is grey-green, with down-turned margins, linear to ovate shaped and densely haired. It is strongly aromatic, especially when crushed.

The size varies between 3.5 and 6.5 mm ( 0.13 and 0.25 in) long and 0.8 and 3 mm (0.03 and 0.11 in) wide.

Thymus vulgaris flower (Common Thyme, Garden 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 white or pale pink 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 stamens are pink and stick out from inside the corolla.

The tiny flowers open from pinkish-green buds encased in a calyx of maroon sepals.

The flowers bloom from late spring to early summer.


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Thymus vulgaris Usage

Ornamental

The Common thyme, with its dense cushion form, covered with pale pink flowers during the flowering season, is very attractive and appreciated as an ornamental plant.

It can be used as a solitary plant or planted in groups. Can be planted in pots, beds or borders. In rock or gravel gardens. 

Very interesting as a ground cover and ideal for filling in crevices of pavements.

It is also used as a Bonsai because it can be shaped into a tiny tree in a short time.

They are suited for drought-tolerant and low-maintenance gardens.

Medicinal

Thymus vulgaris has been used as a medicinal herb for many centuries. Internally it is used to treat cough, throat and lung infections, indigestion, gastritis, and diarrhoea. Externally it is used to treat insect bites, rheumatic pain, fungal infections and acne.

Studies have demonstrated its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial and antifungal properties.

Cosmetics

The essential oil obtained from the Common Thyme plant is used in the perfumery, soaps, toothpaste, and mouthwash solutions.

Culinary

Common Thyme is widely used in culinary, either dry or fresh. It has a spicy flavour.

It can be added to salads and used in cooked meals since it still maintains its flavour after being cooked for a long time and at high temperatures.

It is one of the ingredients of the herb mix “bouquet garni” used in French cuisine.

Thyme’s nectar produces excellent quality honey, which is much appreciated for its pleasant flavour.

Biodiversity

The pretty flowers of Common Thyme are rich in nectar and very attractive to bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects. This enhances the biodiversity of your garden.

Revegetation

Common thyme can be used as seed for the revegetation of rocky slopes and degraded areas.

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.

Thymus vulgaris habitat

This shrub is seen in dry, rocky areas, uncultivated lands, roadsides and scrublands.  It also grows in thickets and open woods.

It is extremely resistant to adverse environments growing well in arid terrain with low nutritional value and sunny exposure.

How to care for Thymus vulgaris

Cold exposure

It’s a hardy plant and tolerates temperatures down to -15ºC (5ºF) and winter frosts.

However, when the plant is not yet established, it will need winter protection during the first few years. You should cover the root area with mulch to protect the roots from low temperatures. Gravel mulch is preferable because it also protects the foliage from the wet surface.

Sun exposure

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

Soil

Common thyme likes poor, well-drained stony soils. It prefers neutral and alkaline soils, although it can tolerate slightly acidic soils also.

Watering

Thymus vulgaris is native to the Mediterranean basin and adapted to hot, dry summers. So it rarely needs watering once established. It especially dislikes humid winters.

During its evolution, it developed mechanisms for drought tolerance:

  • Hairy  branches and leaves to trap moisture 
  • Symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal root fungi provides water and nutrients in exchange for carbohydrates.

However, during the first two years after planting, you will need to water the young thyme every two to three weeks during the summer.  Allow the soil to dry out between watering. In case of a heat wave, water more frequently. Monitor your plants closely and look out for any signs of stress.

When watering, you need to do it abundantly, giving the soil a generous soak so the water can penetrate deeply into the soil to allow the roots to grow deeply. 

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

This plant can endure strong winds but not maritime exposure.

How to prune Thymus vulgaris

This thyme needs to be pruned a couple of times during the year to remain vigorous and beautiful.

Ideally, you should give it a light prune in the spring and then a hard prune (about one-third)  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 vulgaris

Propagation by seed

Thyme can be propagated by seed, but germination can be erratic.

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

When the seedlings are strong enough to handle, you can plant them in individual pots and grow them in the greenhouse or cold frame. Gradually acclimatise them to outdoor conditions before planting in the final location after the last frosts in spring or in autumn.

When transplanting, pinch each stem’s tip 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

Thyme can also be propagated by layering the branches at any time during the year. Bend the stem down, hold it to the ground with a peg or rock, and cover it with soil.

Other Thymes you may also like

Sources

Sources of information used for this article

Internet

Article from Jardin Sec

Article from Extension Gardener

Books

Field Guide to the Wildflowers of the Western Mediterranean, Second edition Paperback – 1 Oct. 2021 by Chris Thorogood

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