Late summer is time for thyme

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Last Updated: 
September 28, 2007

CORVALLIS - One of the smallest of herbs, thyme has played a large role throughout history in medicine, religion, cookery and folklore. Best known now for its use in the kitchen, thyme can add beauty and fragrance to your garden landscape.

You can easily have a supply of fresh thyme for cooking just a few steps away from your kitchen door, according to Joyce Schillen, Master Gardener with the Jackson County office of the Oregon State University Extension Service.

Thyme thrives in hot, dry, Mediterranean-like climates, which makes it a winner in hot summer gardens. Out of more than 400 varieties of thyme that exist in nature, dozens are available at nurseries.

"There's common thyme that forms small bushes, low-growing silver thyme, mat-forming caraway thyme that truly smells and tastes like caraway, lemon thyme in varieties that grow into both small mounds or flat mats and creeping thyme ground covers that bloom in variously-colored blossoms," said Schillen.

"Give thyme well-drained soil, full sun and a weekly watering and it will nearly leap out of the ground in its rush to grow," she said. "A spring application of fertilizer rich in trace elements, such as seaweed, may increase fragrance and flavor."

Schillen said the best-flavored culinary varieties are narrow-leaf French thyme (Thymus vulgaris cv.), broadleaf English thyme, lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus), and "mother of thyme" (T. praecox ssp. arcticus).

Thyme is rich in history.

"It came to North America with the first colonialists to be used both as a food preservative and as a medicine," explained Schillen. "Although not native to North America, it quickly naturalized and spread across the continent."

Used to season appetizers, breads, beverages, salads, soups, sauces, meat entrees, eggs, cheeses, vegetables, oils, vinegars, and even fruits and desserts, thyme's strong, pungent flavor is best used with restraint.

"Start with a teaspoon per recipe, for instance, and experiment to see how much you like," said Schillen. "When adding it to hot foods such as soup, stir it in during the last half hour of cooking to avoid bitterness. In general, use two to three times the amount of fresh herb as dried."

Although some herbs remain evergreen throughout the winter, she said the flavorful oils are at their best just before flowers open in late spring to early summer.

"Thyme flowers are edible, too," Schillen added. "Let a few develop so you can surprise friends and family with the tiny blossoms floating on tea or sprinkled on a salad or casserole."

To dry thyme for future use, place rinsed and dried stems in a dehydrator at 105 degrees for two hours, then turn the temperature down to 95 degrees. It takes less than a day to reach the crisp-dry stage. A dehydrator gives best results, but if you have no dehydrator, put it in a low oven with the door left open to let moisture escape, or microwave a minute at a time until dry.

"In the language of flowers, thyme means thriftiness, courage, strength, and happiness," said Schillen. "I can't testify to thyme's benefit of bestowing courage, but it does, indeed, strengthen a pale pot of soup and bring happiness to the tongue."

Author: Peg Herring
Source: Joyce Schillen