By Steph Zabel
Herbalist, Ethnobotanist and Educator
Pungent, aromatic thyme is one of those plants that we all know — and have eaten in one dish or another — but tend to forget about when it comes to herbal uses. It is similar in some regards to sage in that it is an important culinary herb, used for centuries by the home cook. However, there is much more to thyme than meets the eye…
This spritely little plant originated in the Mediterranean and is one of the oldest herbs with documented use. Due to its preservative and antiseptic properties the Egyptians used it for embalming their dead. Greek soldiers bathed in thyme before war to inspire courage. Amongst the Romans it was exchanged as a sign of respect, and burned as an incense to purify sacred spaces. As a powerful natural antiseptic it has been used throughout history to sterilize wounds, preserve meat, and keep away pests and rodents.
And of course we know thyme as an herb of cooking. What would the famous Herbes de Provence be without it? Thyme is a wonderful addition to meat and heavier dishes; it helps support the digestion of rich and fatty foods. I like to add lots of thyme to my chicken broth, which I simmer for hours and hours in the winter months. (see recipe below)
Much of the power of thyme lies in its essential oil content. This oil is detected when you crush the fresh or dried leaves between your fingers, which release a pungent aroma. The oil, called thymol, is responsible for much of the plant’s action on the human body; it possesses very strong antiseptic and antimicrobial properties. In this regard thyme is useful for getting rid of pests, parasites and pathogens that effect our health. It can kill fungus, mold, yeast, viruses and bacteria. It is especially good for helping to clear infections in the digestive tract and throughout the respiratory system. It is a wonderful herb to turn to when you are coming down with the first signs of a cold. Thyme will enhance immune function and help you to overcome an infection more quickly. I love thyme for coughs, sore throat, and clearing up congestion. To get the benefits, you can drink it as a tea or you can do an old-fashioned steam.
Beyond its lovely healing virtues, thyme also has much folklore that surrounds it. In particular, it was believed to be a plant that fairies like to reside in. (I have to admit, if I were a fairy, I would most certainly like to live in a house made of thyme…and wear clothes made with dainty thyme flowers.) Not only was thyme believed to attract fairies, it also was thought to help you see them as well. I recently came across a recipe from the 1600s that involved making an oil infused with thyme and a few other plants. This oil was to be steeped in the sun for three days, after which it would “enable one to see the fairies.” So, you know what I will be making this summer…
If fairies don’t interest you, perhaps bees do? Thyme is beloved by our buzzing friends, so plant lots of thyme wherever you have room. It is a very easy plant to grow and does just fine in a small container if you don’t have a garden. Mine thrives quite happily in a small window box. Just give it plenty of full sun and it will delight you with its uplifting scent and charming flowers all summer long.
HOW TO USE THYME:
To make thyme tea: add 1/2 teaspoon of dried leaves per 1 cup of water; let steep 5 to 10 minutes and add honey if desired.
Infuse fresh thyme leaves into raw honey and eat by the spoonful, or stir into tea.
For colds and upper respiratory congestion use an old fashioned steam: add a small handful of dried thyme leaves to a big pot of water and bring it to a boil. Then turn off the heat, place a towel over the head to catch the steam, and lean over and breathe in the herbal vapors for as long as you can.
Please do not use the essential oil of thyme internally – it is highly concentrated and very powerful. And for external use, all essential oils should be diluted in a carrier oil such as olive oil.
RECIPE: Chicken Broth with Thyme and Black Pepper
In your largest cooking pot combine the following:
The bones, skins and leftover of one whole roasted chicken
1 - 2 chopped onions
2 chopped carrots
2 sticks chopped celery
a small bunch of fresh parsley
a handful of calendula flowers*
1 tablespoon black peppercorn, crushed*
2 tablespoons dried thyme leaves*
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (to draw out the minerals from the chicken bones)*
*You can find these ingredients at Cambridge Naturals
Cover everything completely with water. Bring to a boil. Skim off any scum that arises. Lower to a rolling simmer, partially cover and let cook for at least 4 hours, up to 48 hours. Add more water as needed.Strain out all the ingredients and store the broth you will use within the week in a glass storage container. Freeze the rest.
Steph Zabel is an herbalist and educator based in Somerville, MA who helps urban dwellers connect with the plant world. She teaches herbal classes, is available for individual wellness consultations, and is also the founder of HERBSTALK, Boston’s community herbal conference. Learn more about her work at: www.flowerfolkherbs.com and www.herbstalk.org.