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Garden thyme, fresh or dried, alone or combined with parsley and bay leaves to make a bouquet garni, adds a distinctive aromatic flavouring to meats, poultry, stews, sauces, and stuffing. Thymus vulgaris, commonly known as cooking thyme, English thyme, French thyme, or winter thyme is just one of the 350 species of the genus Thymus. Often called the ‘herb of courage,’ garden thyme can be grown indoors or out. Thyme is a shrubby perennial with small, oval, narrow, grey-green leaves, long, woody, branched stems, and sturdy roots. This plant blooms in mid-summer and has lavender-pink flowers that occur in small clusters. The flowers attract bees and the honey produced is highly valued. The leaves are very aromatic. Leaves, stems, and flowers may all be eaten.
Garden thyme grows 6 – 20 inches (15 – 50 cm) tall, prefers light, well-drained soil, and full sun.
Allow soil to dry between waterings, as this plant is susceptible to root rot and will not survive long in heavy wet soils. Thyme can be propagated by stem cuttings, seeds, and layering.
Pot outdoor plants for bringing indoors in the fall. Check for insects and spray with a soap and water spray if required. Indoor plants require at least 5 hours of strong sunlight a day. If placed on a windowsill, turn plants frequently to ensure all sides receive equal exposure to the light. If growing under fluorescents, hang lights 6 inches (15 cm) above the plants and leave on for 14 hours a day.
In the garden, plant thyme anywhere as it deters cabbageworm and accents the aromatic qualities of other plants and herbs. In the kitchen, thyme is often used in sausage and other fatty foods such as lamb, pork, duck, or goose as it aids in the digestive process. Generally speaking, in the kitchen, dried thyme is used, as it is preferred for cooking. This herb enhances the flavour of tomato sauces, casseroles, soup, spaghetti sauce, eggs, potatoes, fish, green vegetables, chowders, seafood of all kinds, breads, roasted meats, marinades for meats, plain rice, and tea.
Thyme is especially good in recipes that call for long, slow cooking as it is one of the few herbs that does not lose flavour in cooking, so can be added early. Sprigs can be placed in the water of steamed or boiled vegetables, or used to make thyme-scented vinegar or oil. Fresh leaves and flowers can be used in tossed green salads, and use the leaves, fresh or dried, for butter and cooking oil. Strip the leaves from stems when using fresh. Chopped fresh leaves are much more pungent than dried so use sparingly if substituting for dried in a recipe. The dried flowers and/or leaves are often combined with rosemary and spearmint to make an aromatic tea said to be useful for calming the nerves and soothing headaches.
Thyme can be preserved by freezing or drying. To dry, lay the stems of thyme flat or hang them in bunches in a shady, dry location. Strip the dry leaves from the stems and store in an airtight container. To freeze, lie on a cookie pan, freeze, store in airtight freezer bags, and use as required.
Article by Gwen Nyhus Stewart, B.S.W., M.G., H.T.; educator, freelance writer, garden consultant, and author of the book The Healing Garden: A Place Of Peace.