Time for another delightful herb to grow in the Southwest – thyme. (Earlier this month I discussed basil – here.) Thyme can be used in cooking, is lovely in the landscape, and is a great pollinator plant (since next week is National Pollinator Week.)
Thyme is a large and very popular genus, with over 350 species and countless cultivars grown around the world. Aside from looking lovely in the landscape, it is used in cooking, and has some proven medicinal properties as well. Note that there are even native North American species but most of them do not have the same flavor as the plants used in cooking.
Growing Thyme for Use
Culinary thymes are native to the rocky slopes of the mountains of the eastern Mediterranean region, in the area that is now mostly Greece. Since they are pre-adapted to low water conditions, most species of thyme can be grown here in the Southwest.
In the Southwest, grow your thyme where they will get some shade. The seed packets and books that say “full sun” but that is back east! They are not expecting 100 degree heat for 100 days in a row. They will not be happy in those conditions. Filtered light at the edge of a palo verde tree, or the shade offered by the east or north facing walls of a house also work well. You can also grow it indoors in bright, indirect light.
Make sure your plants are in well-drained soil. Add some sand if you must. I killed several plants until I had finally added enough sand to their bed. There are many thymes to choose from, but here are the species most commonly found in the nursery.
Choosing the Right Thyme
Common or culinary thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a low woody plant barely 8 inches tall. It can become “leggy” – with bare wood showing – so harvest and use or dry your herbs often. You can easily give jars of dried herbs as distinctive and useful gifts.
Creeping thyme (T. praecox) makes an attractive and useful ground cover. It is culinary too! Harvest as needed.
Lemon thyme (Thymus X citriodorus) is a delicious and fragrant low-growing variety with glossy green leaves, and goes wonderfully with fish dishes.
Equally fragrant and delicious is the golden lemon thyme (Thymus X citriodorus ‘Aureus’). With wonderfully variegated leaves, it looks good in the landscape.
Not generally used as culinary herbs, two popular species of creeping thyme are useful in the landscape. Mother-of-thyme (T. serpyllum) and woolly thyme (T. pseudolanginosis) both grow well between shady flagstones, and smell great when stepped on.
Thyme iced tea is refreshing and palate cleansing – wonderful on a hot summer day. I wrote about herbs for iced tea last week on Savor the SW – here.
Use this exquisite herb fresh or dried in soups, salads, on meat dishes or in herb breads. Use an ample number of sprigs in herbal vinegar for an intense and refreshing flavor. For a quick meal at the end of a long day make Sopa de Farigola, a dish popular in the Catalonia region of northeastern Spain.
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More on growing and cooking with thyme in this book – Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today (Tierra del Sol Institute Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies – at no extra cost to you.
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