Cooking and Healing with Thyme

Lifestyle | | January 7, 2010 at 5:00 am
Photo by Michael Lehet.

Photo by Michael Lehet.

A long spell of deep cold knocked back the last of my greens and there’s a fairly even layer of deciduous leaves covering the ground, punctuated by bare limbs and decomposing stalks. My garden is pretty much hibernating.

But one of the bright points this time of year is my thyme, which looks sprightly despite the January gloom. Herbalists like to play around with lists. Example: if you only had three herbs to work with, which would you choose? Thyme is consistently on my lists. It’s incredibly easy to grow, tastes fantastic and makes powerful medicine.

In the kitchen

Most people are familiar with thyme (Thymus vulgaris) as a classic salad dressing and cooking herb. It’s standard in French stocks and sauces and it’s a staple of Mediterranean cooking. Tossing thyme onto vegetables before roasting elevates your meal.

Try these recipes as a starting point:

Thyme’s medicine

Thyme helps support digestion. The compounds that give the plant its strong herbal smell also make your gastrointestinal tract do its job more efficiently. Thyme is broadly and fairly strongly antimicrobial, killing bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasitic worms.

If you’re worried about the flu, for instance, consider using it in Dr. Nishant’s antiviral soup. When taken internally, thyme also promotes excretion through the urinary tract, and helps disinfect on its way out.

One of thyme’s less-known uses—and one of my favorites—is as a respiratory aid. It soothes the lung’s mucous membranes, reduces spasms, fights pathogens and helps you cough out accumulated gunk. Take a large handful of fresh or dried herb, put it in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Then, with your head over the bowl and under a towel, breathe deeply to get the herb’s aromatic oils into your nose and lungs.

Externally, thyme makes a great skin wash or soak to help fight or prevent infections. While I prefer the fresh herb, it’s okay to cautiously use the diluted essential oil, no more than one drop at a time. Don’t do this if you’re steaming—I say from experience, as it burns like crazy!

In the garden

In many ways, thyme is a perfect garden plant.  It’s easy to grow in the ground or in pots, stays green year ‘round,  and doesn’t need fancy soil or a lot of water. It forms low mats of varying widths, with adorable tiny flowers like a miniature heather. Like many of its mint-family relatives, it feeds honeybees and other pollinators.

Grow thyme on any sunny windowsill, porch or patio. If you’ve got a bit of ground, try it between pavers—several varieties can handle moderate foot traffic—or grow over wide surfaces as a groundcover or low-maintenance lawn. Also consider interplanting it in your veggie or flower beds, where its aroma helps confuse harmful bugs.

Almost every sells a couple varieties of thyme, including common or English thyme, lemon thyme and usually at least one variegated variety. Farmer’s markets and food co-ops often sell plants, too; this is a great way to get the best varieties for your area, at the best prices, while establishing connections with local farmers.

Photo by Orna Izakson.

Photo by Orna Izakson.

OrnaDr. Orna Izakson, ND, RH (AHG) is a naturopathic physician, herbalist, gardener and writer. She specializes in respiratory issues, mood and women's health at Celilo Natural Health Center in Portland, Oregon.

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