All About Thyme: A Brief History of Thyme (No Knowledge of Quantum Physics Required)

A Brief History of Thyme

(with apologies to Stephen Hawking)

Merciless emperors and embattled soldiers, knights in shining armor and woodland fairies, the birth of a Savior and the scourge of the Black Plague—thyme, for such a delicate looking plant, you certainly have a long storied history.

Sumerians?

The Sumerians were an ancient civilization in the southern portion of land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, just north of the present day Persian Gulf.

Where Did You Come From?

It is thought that the ancient Sumerians were the first to grow thyme, perhaps as long as 5,000 years ago. They recognized its minty-clove aroma as a hint to its potential for medicinal purposes and thus began the use of thyme as an antiseptic and disinfectant.

Thyme’s use as a curative was continued by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The Greeks used sprigs of thyme as a preservative for fruit and wine, and drank tinctures of thyme to ward off nightmares. They revered thyme as a symbol of courage and burned bundles of it as incense, the aroma purported to imbue soldiers with a spirit of fearlessness and endurance.

Fair maiden
Fair maiden | Source

This association of thyme and courage continued in the Middle Ages. In the days of knights, beleaguered castles and chivalry, fair maidens would embroider scarves with sprays of thyme—the scarves to be worn by their true loves as they entered into battle.


The Romans also believed in the power of thyme to give courage to their soldiers. And they believed that the scent of burning thyme would repel scorpions.

“Thyme…puts to flight all venomous creatures.”

— Pliny the Elder

In the Roman era it was also thought that ingesting thyme would protect one from poison. (I think we can assume that large beds of thyme were well-tended in the gardens of the Emperor.) Thyme was even tossed into the bathwater as an added safeguard.

And it was the Romans who introduced thyme to England, where it thrived and still grows today.

Little Bits of Trivia

  • According to legend, the Christ child’s manger bed was filled with hay and thyme.
  • Thyme grew in Egypt where it was used in the mummification process.
  • In the Middle Ages, thyme was placed beneath ones pillow to aid sleep and ward off nightmares.
  • In the 18th century it was recommended as a cure for hangovers.


Fast-forward 1,300 years. When the Black Death struck, millions of people in Europe used thyme for protection and cure. Thyme was worn around the neck, burned to fill the air with its pungent smoke, applied as a poultice to festering blistered skin, and stuffed in the masks of attending physicians.

Leave it to the Victorians to take the mythology of thyme to a whole new level. They considered a patch of wild thyme in the woods to be indisputable evidence that fairies had danced on that very spot.

Perhaps we should blame it on Shakespeare. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, he wrote that Titania, the Queen of the Faeries, often went to "a bank whereon the wild thyme blows."

But the Victorians were not totally clueless. Long before the control of infections was fully understood, they were soaking bandages in thyme tea.

What's In A Name?

There are many theories on the origin of this ancient herb’s name. Most agree that the Thyme is derived from thumos (Greek for smoke) and that makes perfect sense when you consider that thyme was used to perfume their homes and temples. However some historians think the name might have originated from fumus, Latin for fumigate (remember the Sumarians?)

Yet another theory comes from Tournefort (a French botanist) who says that thyme comes from “mind” because it was used for as a remedy for fainting.

Remember the Sumerians?

Does thyme give one courage or prevent nightmares? Is it an antitoxin or evidence of fairy visits? Call me a cynic, but I really doubt it. However, thyme contains thymol, a naturally-occurring compound with strong antimicrobial properties. In other words, it fights germs and fungus. Listerine mouth wash, anti-fungal creams, and some toothpastes and topical preparation for acne contain thymol. Thymol is also available as an over-the-counter product, but the purpose of this hub is not to promote or endorse the use of thymol for self-medication.

I would much rather cook with thyme.

Monastic garden at Glouster Cathedral
Monastic garden at Glouster Cathedral | Source

Cooking with Thyme

Europeans did not use thyme solely to combat the plague or chase nightmares. They also recognized it as a valuable seasoning for foods. Historians tell us that monasteries maintained enviable herbal gardens. Because they were secluded and self-sufficient, the monks who lived there had to rely on their own resources when caring for their sick and injured, and they raised their own food.

Not the Star of the Show

Thyme is not meant to be the star of the show. As a member of the mint family it might overwhelm in a solo performance. But, when paired with onion, garlic, parsley, or other herbs, it lends a subtle warmth and complexity to dishes that would otherwise have just a single note. A few leaves added at the last minute of cooking lend an aromatic undertone that brings all other flavors into sharper focus.

How to Grow and Harvest Thyme

The Recipes

Following are just a few ideas of how to use thyme in your cooking.

Lemon Thyme Risotto
Lemon Thyme Risotto | Source

Lemon Thyme Risotto

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 ½ tsp. olive oil
  • ½ cup minced onion
  • ½ cup finely diced celery
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 thyme sprigs or lemon thyme sprigs, leaves removed
  • ¾ cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 3-4 cups chicken, vegetable, or mushroom broth, heated to a simmer
  • 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
  • 1/4 cup marscapone cheese
  • Juice and zest of ½ lemon

Instructions

  1. In large frying pan melt 1 tablespoon butter with olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, celery, and garlic and cook until onion is soft, about 2 minutes. Stir in thyme.
  2. Add 1/4 cup of the wine and cook until wine is absorbed. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.
  3. Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add rice, pepper, and remaining 1/2 cup white wine. Stir to insure that rice does not clump together and cook until wine is absorbed. Add 1 cup broth; reduce heat to low, and stir until broth is almost absorbed. Continue to add broth, 1/2 cup at a time and stirring until rice is creamy and tender but still firm in center. This should take about 15 to 18 minutes.
  4. Stir in onion/thyme mixture. Remove from heat and stir in cheeses, lemon juice and lemon zest.

Radishes
Radishes

Roasted Radishes with Thyme

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch (about 1 pound) assorted small radishes
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter, melted
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Wash the radishes. Cut off the root ends and the tops, leaving about 1/2 inch of the stem. Dry and then transfer to a large bowl with the thyme, olive oil and melted butter. Toss to combine. Place in a shallow baking dish then sprinkle with sea salt and a few grinds of pepper.
  3. Bake in preheated oven 10-15 minutes.

Onion Tart with Thyme
Onion Tart with Thyme | Source
Roasted Lemon Thyme Chicken (Photo by Peden + Munk)
Roasted Lemon Thyme Chicken (Photo by Peden + Munk) | Source

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Comments 10 comments

Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 17 months ago Author

Patricia - Thank you so much. It was fun researching this topic. Blessings to you as well.


pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 17 months ago from sunny Florida

Well thank you for filling in all of the holes in my knowledge of thyme. I do like to use it in cooking and as you say it is not intended to be the 'star' but to punctuate and accent flavors.

Well done thanks for sharing...

Angels are on the way to you

voted up++++


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 17 months ago Author

Flourish - Will you remember these stories when next you pick some thyme? I bet you will. That's the whole point. Make it fun, and make it memorable. Thank you for your kind words. If you use any of the recipes please let me know. I would love to get your feedback.


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 17 months ago from USA

I love how you integrate history with recipes and humor, too. Although I'm not much of a gardener, I can definitely grow herbs, and this is one I grow.


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 17 months ago Author

Emese - I am so glad that your son liked the addition to your meal. Thanks for your support and kind words.


Emese Fromm profile image

Emese Fromm 17 months ago from The Desert

Great hub on thyme! I enjoyed reading it and I learned a lot from it. It also reminded me that I don't mind using thyme, so I incorporated it into tonight's dinner. My son was impressed, didn't quite know why but the pork tasted better than usual :). Thank you for sharing your knowledge!


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 17 months ago Author

GiftsbyDiana - Thyme has many healing qualities, and garlic is also supposed to be very good for your circulation. I hope that some of the recipes I shared are helpful to you.


GiftsByDiana profile image

GiftsByDiana 17 months ago from Hubbard, Ohio, USA

I try to use thyme, garlic, oregano... in almost everything because they help in my battle with lymphedema.


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 17 months ago Author

Thank you Bill. That's quite a compliment. No chance of staying cool today. Helping my daughter prep the exterior of her house for painting. Yeah, I know, timing could not have been worse.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 17 months ago from Olympia, WA

This should be the template for how to write a recipe article. Perfect, Linda. A joy to read, and I don't even like thyme. :) Have a great weekend and try to stay cool.

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