Don't let thyme slip away from you

This delicate herb adds fragrance and flavor, comes in several varieties

In The Garden

April 20, 2003|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

After my first attempt at boeuf bourguignon in high school, I complained to my French teacher that something was missing.

His advice was concise: "Add thyme."

I tried again, this time, simmering the stew with a liberal dose of dried French thyme. What a difference! But it wasn't until I grew my own thyme that I learned how much that single herb enhances soups, stews, pates, vegetables and more.

"Thyme is a good universal herb," says Rolfe Hagen, owner of the Thyme Garden Herb Co. in Alsea, Ore., which grew out of Hagen's gourmet restaurant there.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), a low-growing woody perennial, has long been a favorite of Mediterranean cooks. The herb flavors Benedictine liqueur, and thyme honey has been prized for millenniums. But its benefits go way beyond flavor. Thyme is a natural digestive aid that imparts a wealth of nutrients.

"Thyme activates digestive enzymes," says Ann Stubbs, owner of Sinking Springs Herb Farm in Elkton. "It also contains calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, and vitamins B1, B2, B3 and C."

But thyme's benefits are more than nutritional. Thyme contains thymol, a powerful antiseptic. It was used from ancient times right up through World War I to treat soldiers' battlefield wounds. Possibly as a result, thyme became a symbol of bravery.

"Greek soldiers bathed in it for courage and energy before battle," says Madeline Wajda, owner of Willow Pond Farm Herbs and Everlastings in Fairfield, Pa.

Plenty of thyme

With a thatch of delicate little leaves and flowers that bloom in colors such as white, pale pink, lavender and red, thyme is a beautiful, fragrant addition to a window box, patio pot or perennial bed. There are two basic kinds of thyme -- creeping and upright -- in about 200 varieties, but most garden centers carry only four or five. Herb farms offer a wider selection. Sinking Springs Herb Farm sells about fourteen varieties, including three different lemon thymes, lime thyme, oregano thyme, 'Pennsylvania Dutch Tea' thyme, coconut thyme, purple creeping thyme, orange balsam thyme and caraway thyme, which the English use to flavor beer.

"Orange balsam has an orangy tinge on tiny leaves and a slightly orange flavor," says Stubbs.

One of Hagen's favorites is 'German Winter' thyme. "It has a good and strong flavor," he says. "So I love it for cooking. And it's really tough, and has nice pale pink flowers on long stems."

Another of his favorites is 'Highland Cream Lemon' thyme, a creeping variety with a lovely lemon fragrance and beautiful green-and-white variegated leaves.

Red creeping thyme, he says, "has almost-red flowers and is a massive bloomer."

All thymes are edible, though the creeping varieties have such tiny leaves that they are more often used as ornamentals in rock gardens and to edge borders. Planted between flagstones, they waft scent up at each step. Bees love thyme flowers.

"We have woolly mother of thyme on a walk," adds Wajda. "And the birds around here take it and tuck into their nests."

Cultivation

Thyme is one of the easiest herbs to grow. It thrives in full sun and is tolerant of a range of soils, though over-rich soil or too much fertilizer dilutes the essential oils and, therefore, the herb's scent and flavor. Wajda fertilizes only twice -- right after harvesting in mid-summer and again in early spring. Hagen doesn't fertilize at all.

"We just put compost on them," he says.

Good drainage is key to thyme's health. Too much moisture rots the roots. In the rainy Northwest, Hagen grows the upright varieties in raised beds.

"The creeping varieties are a little tougher," says Hagen.

The roots of the upright varieties may need mulching in harsh winters, but in spring, pull mulch away from the plant. Thyme spreads by layering -- where a sprig touches the ground, it usually sends down roots. These newly rooted sprigs can be clipped off the parent plant and transplanted.

For cooking, clip sprigs any time from early spring through late fall.

To harvest for drying or freezing, cut the whole plant back to about 2 inches from the ground just before it blooms in mid-summer. Tie in small bunches and hang upside down in an airy room until brittle. Store in an airtight container away from sunlight. To freeze, stuff dry sprigs into freezer bags. Then take out as much as you need. No need to thaw.

Sources

The Thyme Garden Herb Co.

20546 Alsea Highway

Alsea, Ore. 97324

541-487-8671

www.thymegarden.com

* 60 different thymes sold on the Web site until June 1.

Sinking Springs Herb Farm

234 Blair Shore Road

Elkton, Md. 21921

410-398-5566

www.cecilcounty.com / sinkingsprings /

* 130-acre farm with 18th-century farm house and B&B cottage. Herbal luncheons by appointment.

Willow Pond Farm Herbs and Everlastings

145 Tract Road

Fairfield, Pa. 17320

717-642-6387

www.willowpondherbs. com

* Certified organic herb farm.

No Thyme Productions

8321 SE 61st St.

Mercer Island, Wash. 98040

206-236-8885

www.nothyme.com

* Thirteen thymes (some international). The company ships plants year round.

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