A THYME FOR ALL SEASONS
A THYME FOR ALL SEASONS
by Andrea Candee, MH, MSC
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where the oxlips and the nodding violet grows;
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.”
-A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare)
Thyme (thymus vulgaris) symbolized innocence to the Ancients. The Greeks considered it a fumigant, on a par with attributes of purification. When burned as incense, according to Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, 23-79 A.D., it put to flight all “venomous creatures”. To “smell of thyme” was a Greek expression of praise given to those whose style was admired. Ladies used thyme in their linens, much the same as lavender, to keep away insects. Innocence, a fumigant, admiration – the romantic legacies of a common garden herb.
The name thyme was derived from the Greek word, thumus, signifying courage. Medieval ladies embroidered scarves for their knights with a bee and sprays of thyme as symbols of bravery. A drink of thyme cordial was thought to endow one with boldness of spirit. What an enticement it must have been for young men and some plucky damsels.
It’s easy to understand why young maidens wore thyme in their hair to indicate their availability for marriage. In early times, given the infrequent schedule of bathing, the fumigant qualities of the herb were probably appreciated by young suitors! Once married, the young ladies undoubtedly discovered thyme’s culinary and healing virtues in addition to its seductive qualities.
Grown in England before the middle of the 16th century, thyme’s fumigant qualities commonly appeared in soaps, sachets, perfumes and incense. Thyme grows throughout the world in many varieties from creeping Irish moss groundcover to the upright purple flowering variety commonly observed in formal herb knots. A hardy perennial, it continues to make itself available even after the first snowfall. Dried thyme from the garden is superior in flavor to the purchased dried variety. When gathering the fresh herb (leaves and flowering tops) do not wash them, as much of the medicinal value is in its volatile oil. Hang the branches upside down to dry, then strip them of their leaves.
Thyme’s volatile oils endow the herb with a variety of medicinal applications:
- eases upper respiratory discomforts
- soothes sore throats
- relieves digestive upset and headache
- provides antiseptic potency
Its chief active constituent, thymol, a volatile oil, is powerfully aromatic. As a cough remedy it expectorates and acts as an antispasmodic, therefore most helpful with bronchitis. It combines well with the herb ephedra (commonly known in its synthetic form as ephedrine) to relax the tissues of the lungs when suffering from whooping cough.
According to herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1615-1654), thyme is “a noble strengthener of the lungs, as notable a one as grows, nor is there a better remedy growing for hooping cough. It purgeth the body of phlegm and is an excellent remedy for shortness of breath. It is so harmless you need not fear the use of it. An ointment made of it takes away hot swellings and warts, helps the sciatica and dullness of sight and takes away any pains and hardness of the spleen: it is excellent for those that are troubled with the gout and the herb taken anyway inwardly is of great comfort to the stomach.”
Contemporary Medicinal Uses
An infusion of thyme, used as a gargle, eases sore irritated throats and coughs associated with laryngitis. It would be most helpful to those who use their voices a lot (teachers, singers, actors, public speakers) to gargle with and drink thyme tea before, during and after prolonged periods of vocalization. Tired and constricted vocal cords are susceptible to invasion of bacteria and viruses.
Thyme’s high content of volatile oil is good for dyspepsia: sluggish digestion, flatulence, stomach spasms and digestive headaches. Drinking the cool infusion will bring relief. Perhaps this is why thyme had a reputation for curing melancholia and nightmares as well as hangovers – an indisposed stomach could well be responsible for any of them!
Delicious thyme-honey syrup keeps well (honey is a preservative) and is a good preparation to have on hand throughout the winter months. Tablespoon doses (half as much for small children) can be had as often as is needed to soothe coughing spells, laryngitis, and sore throats.
Steep one ounce dried thyme in one pint boiled water, covered, until cool; strain. Add one cup unfiltered, uncooked honey (found in the health food store), stir and refrigerate (not for children under two years of age due to possible issues with strains of botulism in honey that their young immune systems cannot fight off).
A thyme bath is therapeutic for bronchitis. Steep 2 tablespoons thyme and 2 tablespoons eucalyptus (or add 8-10 drops essential oil of eucalyptus directly to bath) in 2 pints boiled water for 30 minutes. Strain, and add to bath water. Inhale deeply to benefit from the aromatic volatile oils.
Thyme is highly antiseptic and can be used externally as a lotion for infected wounds. In its tincture form, thyme destroys fungal infections such as athlete’s foot and skin parasites such as lice. Also found in thyme is carrocol (the primary volatile oil in caraway), pinene (found in pine trees) and menthol (found in the mints). Do not waste thyme’s soggy residue – use it as a toilet flush. Its antiseptic oils are powerfully germicidal.
Thyme endows our modern lifestyle with a variety of benefits ranging from medicinal relief of respiratory ailments to enhancing a succulent roasted chicken with a savory flavor. Even bees’ affection for thyme enables us to enjoy delicious thyme honey.
Whether you grow your own, purchase it fresh or dried, be sure to include thyme in your repertoire of botanical medicinals.
© Copyright Andrea Candee, All rights reserved
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrea Candee, MH, MSC, is a master herbalist with a practice in South Salem, NY (Westchester County). She lectures for corporate wellness centers and school fundraisers about taking charge of your health naturally and will bring her workshops to you. Her book, Gentle Healing for Baby and Child (Simon & Schuster), was awarded The National Parenting Center’s Seal of Approval. She may be contacted through her website, www.andreacandee.com. Click on ‘Did You Know?” to receive her free e-letter.