Thyme – Thymus spp.
The second in the series ‘Medicinal plants and Permaculture’ is the hardy and highly aromatic Thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Although this time of year in the northern hemisphere is a slow one for plants, this herb is highly useful for winter ailments, for adults and children alike. Considering stacking functions; as a vigorous perennial this plant also provides year-round ground cover and foliage through the long winter months even in the coldest climates. Whilst during the summer, it is adored bee fodder giving a distinctive flavour to the honey (1), a carpet of pretty delicate flowers and full aroma. Like permaculture, herbal medicine forms part of a strategy that helps to build resilience and reduce disasters by maintaining a healthy, optimal equilibrium. A variety of herbs can be used through the year in advance of changing seasons to build resistance and immunity within the body. Thyme is a great herb to use as a pre-cursor to the onset of winter, and through winter to maintain optimal health and well-being (although also highly useful at other times too, depending on the ailment and constitution of the individual).
Thyme is a perennial, native European plant, adapted in diverse climates; able to withstand deep freezes and drought tolerant (2). According to Royal Kew Botanic Gardens there are 220 known species of Thyme, and many hybrids (3). This may explain the speculation of up to 350 different species existing globally, most of which are wild types (4). No doubt, it is a ubiquitous plant. The most common garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris L.) is thought to be an ‘improved’ cultivation of the Wild Thyme (T.serpyllum) hailing from the European mountains. Its date of introduction into Northern Europe as a cultivar precedes the 16th century (5). Used in ancient Egypt for embalming, ancient Greece for incense and during Roman times for purification and food flavouring this herb symbolically represents courage (2). It was noted by the 17th Century British herbalist Nicholas Culpepper as a ‘notable strengthener of the lungs, as notable as one grows’ (1). Like basil, this plant is a culinary favourite whose uses cover a broad geographic area from Western Europe as bouquet garni and herbes de province (6) to the Middle East as a vital ingredient in za’atar (2).
Thyme retains a lot of flavour and aroma on careful drying (8), making it an ideal plant to store. All of the aerial (above ground) parts are used, and recipes may distinguish between leaves only and whole stems. It is best grown in well-drained, light chalky soil (1). It should be harvested in summer, during flowering (7). Like basil, this aromatic mint family plant is known to have around 30 different volatile oils (9) and therefore highly utilised as an essential oil. The main volatile oil constituents have been identified as thymol (30.86%) (10), γ- terpinene, ρ-cymene, linalool, myrcene, α-pinene, eugenol, carvacrol and α –thujene (9), as well as the flavonoids quercitin, kaempferol, luteolin and apigenin (11). The volatile oils and flavonoids confer strong therapeutic virtues of antiseptic, anti-microbial, anti-fungal, analgesic (pain killing), anti-oxidant and antispasmodic actions.
The therapeutic actions make it a valuable plant that stimulates and tones the immune system, especially in chronic exhausted states (7). This is a remedy specific for the throat and chest, the volatile oils having an affinity with the lungs making it one of the most effective cough remedies known (12). It can effectively treat chest infections (especially valuable for childhood chest infections) such as bronchitis, whooping cough and pleurisy, and especially where there is tightness and stuck phlegm, it acts to disinfect and relax the chest (1). It is also useful in asthma and hay fever, to treat rheumatic pains, and fungal infections including athlete’s foot, thrush and ringworm (1). Additionally, it restores a weak stomach and irritable digestion (as a cold infusion) (7) and has valuable anti-oxidant properties and counters the effects of aging (1).
And now………………the best recipes!!!!
1. Thyme cough syrup –
From Christopher Hedley and Non Shaw(13)
- 40g dried herb
- 900ml water
- 450g sugar/ water
- put chopped herbs and water into a pan and bring to boil. Cover with tight fitting lid, turn down heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes
- Allow liquid to cool and strain off liquid into measuring jug. Press the herb to get as much liquid out as possible
- Return liquid to pan and simmer gently uncovered until reduced to 200mls (about 1/4 of original volume). The slower the reduction, the better. The resulting liquid is a decoction.
- Add the sugar/ honey to pan, dissolve slowly and simmer for a few minutes, stirring all the time until a syrupy consistency is achieved.
- Pour into sterilised jars/ bottles with a clear label and date
- Dosage: child 1teaspoons 3-6 times daily
- Adult 2-3 teaspoons 3-6 times daily
From Henriette Kress (6):
A cough syrup with 1 part thyme, 2 parts hyssop and 3 parts peppermint, made using the above method.
Syrups may be kept for at least one year – if they last that long!
2. Dried or fresh herb tea:
Henriette Kress recommends a cold thyme infusion for helping with digestive problems (dyspepsia) in weak or damaged digestion. Taking an (hot) infusion regularly (2-3 cups daily for 1-2 months) of thyme tea will help to strengthen the lungs, and may be used in combination with either sage (Salvia officinalis) or fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) 50/50. Don’t steep the tea for too long otherwise it will be become strong and overpowering with bitter tannins. In this instance taking the tea regularly over a longer period of time will really help to build strength and resistance in the lungs, especially at the turn of the season from autumn to winter. To prepare tea, take one heaped teaspoon of dried herb and add to one cup (around 250mls) of freshly boiled water. Cover and allow to steep 5 minutes, maximum. Strain and drink.
An easy way to make a simple preparation that is fuss-free and straight forward to take, using alcohol as a solvent. Tinctures may also be used for children, just at lower doses. Usual dosages: 5mls 3 times daily for adults and half doses for children aged 3-14 years and quarter doses for under 3 years (seek advice for children under 12 months). The simplest way to make a tincture is to take a large jar, fill it with clean fresh or dry herb, cover the whole thing with alcohol (vodka, brandy etc). Seal with a lid, label and leave for 2 weeks to macerate. Shake the jar gently every day to invigorate the mix. After 2 weeks, strain off the liquid, discard the herb matter and place in a sterilised jar/ bottle, label and store out of reach of children.
4. Essential oil
Can be used in a burner to disinfect a room for treating coughs/ colds. Add a couple of drops to milk or oil then add to the bath for inhaling for coughs/ colds and in the treatment of genital thrush or fungal skin infections. Whilst essential oils are very effective when taken internally it is wise not to do so unless under the professional direction of a herbalist.
5. Infused oil
This can be made along with other stimulating and expectorant herbs (for example ginger and eucalyptus) then rubbed onto the soles of children to help stimulate the immune system. For a standard oil infusion take 100g of dried herb, place in a bowl and cover with 1Litre of carrier oil. Place the bowl in a pan of boiling water (ban marie) and simmer for 30-60 minutes, stirring and checking oil and water temperature regularly (only a rolling boil, and make sure to top up water). The oil should change to a nice green. After 1 hour, strain off the oil pressing the herb in a cheese cloth to squeeze all remaining liquid out. Compost the herb and put oil in a clean, labelled jar/ bottle with the date.
Lucie Bradley is a Medical Herbalist, Ethnobotanist and amateur permaculturalist www.luciebradley.com
1. Chevalier, A. (1996) Encyclopaedia of Medicinal Plants. Dorling Kindersley, UK
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thyme, accessed 19/01/2015
4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thymus_%28plant%29, accessed 19/01/2015
5. https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/t/thygar16.html, accessed 19/01/2015
6. https://www.henriettes-herb.com/blog/hotw-thyme.html, accessed 09/02/2015
7. https://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/kings/thymus.html, accessed 20/01/2015
8. https://sanctuarygardener.wordpress.com/2013/06/26/drying-herbs-in-the-oven/, accessed 09/02/2015
10. Grigore A., Paraschiv I., Colceru-Mihul S., Bubueanu C., Draghici E., Ichim M., 2010, Chemical composition and antioxidant activity of Thymus vulgaris L. volatile oil obtained by two different methods. Romanian Biotechnological Letters. Vol.15, No.4
11. Zeghad N., Merghem R., 2013. Antioxidant and antibacterial activities of Thymus vulgaris L. Medicinal and Aromatic Plant Research Journal. Vol. 1(1), pp. 5-11. Available at http: //www.sciencewebpublishing.net/maprj/archive/2013/September/pdf/Nadia%20and%20Rachid.pdf, accessed 09/02/2015
12. Weiss, R.F. 2001. Weiss’s Herbal Medicine, Classic Edition. Thieme, Germany
13. Hedley C., Shaw N., 1999. Herbal Remedies: a practical beginner’s guide to makmaking effective remedies in the kitchen. Paragon, Bath, UK