By Amy Grant
Any time is a good time to grow thyme. It’s true. There are over 300 thyme varieties in the mint family of Lamiaceae, of which thyme is a member. All have been prized for centuries for their fragrance, flavor and ornamental habitat. With this dizzying array of thyme varieties, there is a possible specimen for nearly every climate and landscape. Keep reading about the types of thyme plants you can grow.
How to Care for Different Types of Thyme
Most thyme varieties are hardy in USDA zones 5-9 but tend to dislike hot, humid summers or overly wet conditions. Also, most varieties of thyme prefer full sun and well drained soil. With a little research and even with adverse conditions, however, there are sure to be various types of thyme plants that are suitable for growth in those areas.
Avoid fertilizing thyme varieties as they tend to become leggy and weak. Types of thyme plants cultivated for culinary use should be replaced every 3 years or so to prevent woody stems and promote the desirable tender leaf production. Most varieties of thyme are susceptible to overwatering, and many varieties of thyme tolerate or even thrive amid moderate to severe pruning.
All varieties of thyme are easy to propagate via cuttings, division and seed and with their low growing habit (less than 15 inches tall), this semi-evergreen is appropriate for ground cover or for growing in an herb garden, window box or pots. Many thyme varieties have a lovely spreading habit and will also look wonderful peeking between pavers or stones in a patio or walkway or in a rocky wall while being tolerant of foot traffic. Others have a more upright growth pattern and do well as stand-alone specimens in the garden or in pots, either alone or mixed with other plants or herbs.
Uses for Different Types of Thyme
Highly aromatic with tiny leaves and tubular shaped flowers forming in dense groups, all different types of thyme are attractive to bees and the honey made from bees who dine on thyme blooms rivals that of the finest lavender honey.
Of course, thyme varieties are sought after for cooking and used classically in “boquet garni” in stews, soups, meat, fish, compound butter, eggs, dressings, and vegetable dishes. Thyme pairs exquisitely with lemon, garlic, and basil and can be used either fresh or dried in any of the above or put sprigs in oil or vinegar to infuse the flavor. The essential oil of many varieties of thyme plants are used in colognes, soaps, lotions and even candles. Dried thyme is lovely in sachets.
Thyme leaves may be harvested either before or after blooming and is one of the few herbs where using dried or fresh seems to matter little in the flavoring of foods. However, it is slow to release its oils, so add it earlier in the cooking process.
Types of Thyme Plants
While there are a plethora of thyme varieties, here is a list of some of the most common:
- Common thyme (T. vulgaris) – prostrate form, yellow and variegated foliage available, used in cooking.
- Lemon thyme (T. x. citriodorus) – upright form, golden and variegated silver foliage available, strong lemon scent.
- Woolly thyme (T. pseudolanuginosus) – prostrate form, pubescent stems and leaves appear gray in color, good for rock gardens.
- Creeping thyme (T. praecox) – sometimes called mother-of-thyme, is mat-forming, grows only two to three inches tall, mauve, white, and crimson flowering cultivars available.
- Wild thyme (T. serpyllum) – prostrate and upright forms, cultivars provide flower colors ranging from red to purple, foliage can be green, gold, or variegated.
- Elfin thyme (T. serpyllum ‘Elfin’) – creeping variety no more than 1-2 inches high with fragrant leaves and tiny purple or pink flowers, good for rock gardens and in between pavers or bricks.
And the list goes on: Red Compact, Lime thyme, Lemon Frost thyme, Pennsylvania Dutch Tea thyme (yes, good for tea), Orange Balsam thyme, Caraway thyme (redolent of caraway), Pink Chintz or Reiter Creeping thyme.
Go to your local nursery and inquire regarding what thyme varieties are recommended in your area, then play around with their texture and growth habit to create interesting niches in your home garden.