Totally Thyme
    If you go to a nursery and ask for thyme, you may be given a small, shrub-like plant, a sprawling six inch plant or even a thick, matted herb growing less than one inch tall.  The leaves may be bright green, gray or variegated white and green or yellow and green.  It may not even taste like thyme--some members of the thyme genus are flavorless ornamentals while others are strongly lemon, spicy orange or even coconut or lavender flavored!  In other words, there is a thyme for every taste.
    The wide variety of thymes available make them versatile in the landscape.  Upright forms can be closely pruned to edge garden beds.  Creeping types may be used in rock gardens or let cascade over walls.  Tiny Elfin thyme will make a carpet at the base of a rosemary standard--add a fairy figurine for a bit of whimsy.  A floral pun results when a sundial is placed in the center of a tapestry of thymes.  Let creeping forms fill in between stepping stones.  With thyme, your imagination will run wild.
    Thymes are native to the Mediterranean region and thrive in warm, dry locations.  Good drainage and air circulation are absolute musts for these members of the Lamiaceae family.  If planted in a poorly draining site a thyme will quickly fall victim to root rot or fungal disease.  Raised beds are ideal for growing thyme in Austin, Texas.  With the heavy clay soils in this area thyme lawns are a near impossibility, although never say never.  In The Herb Garden Kitchen, Lucinda Hutson recommends placing a large flat rock at the base of newly planted thymes to help protect the shallow roots from scorching summer sun and unintentional uprooting.  Other authors suggest that a gravel mulch will also be helpful.
    Thyme is best propagated by divisions of sprawling plants or cuttings of the upright forms.  Thyme branches root quickly if bent to contact the soil and a rock placed over the point of contact.  The non-hybrid forms may also be grown from seed, but germination is slow.
     Thyme is an easy plant to grow when proper growing conditions are found.  Frequent light prunings will encourage leaf growth.  Thymes do have a tendency to become woody as they age.  Many gardeners replace them every three to four years.  In Austin, thyme is evergreen and the tasty sprigs may be clipped throughout the year, but avoid heavy pruning in late fall and winter.  Use thyme in meat dishes, soups and stews, breads and salads.  A chicken stuffed with lemon thyme and roasted in the oven is heavenly.  The small thyme leaves are easily stripped from their stems by holding a sprig in one hand and stripping from top to bottom with the other hand.  Tender stems that may remain are fine, the goal is to remove the woody stems that can be quite unpleasant when bitten.  As with other herbs, three teaspoons of fresh thyme may be substituted for 1 teaspoon of the dried herb.
    The botanical nomenclature of thyme is even more confusing than the wide variety of forms. Thymus vulgaris refers to common thyme.  Both French and English thymes are often identified as T. vulgaris, but others argue that this name only refers to thymes with a slightly curled leaf and the flat leaved English thyme is more accurately identified as a hybrid, Thymus 'Broadleaf English'.  (Please e-mail Ann Marie if you can shed light on this confusion)  Thymes readily crossbreed with one another leading to numerous varieties.  As with all herbs, a good rule-of-thumb is to buy a plant whose appearance, scent and flavor appeal to you.   In gardening, as in art, what you enjoy is most important!  In the language of flowers, thyme symbolizes happiness and courage.

French Thyme         Thymus 'Fine Leaf French'
This upright growing herb is basic to cooking.  It is a small, shrubby plant whose narrow pointed leaves have a grayish tint to them.  It grows from twelve to eighteen inches high.  The flowers of French thyme range from white to pale purple and, like all thymes, will attract bees to your garden.  It is hardy to five degrees F.

Orange Thyme        Thymus 'Orange Balsam'
This delightful plant is an upright form of thyme growing to twelve inches tall.  The small, narrow leaves are dark green and the dainty blossoms are white.  Orange thyme has a spicy orange flavor that is excellent added to breads and teas.

Lavender Thyme     Thymus 'Lavender'
An interesting creeping form of thyme staying under four inches tall.  The small green leaves are useful in potpourris.  The scent is that of lavender with an added bit of spice.  The flavor is interesting.  Lavender colored flowers.

English Thyme        Thymus 'Broad Leaf English'
This hybrid plant grows in an erect form to eight inches.  The shiny, green leaves are about twice the width of French Thyme and are flat rather than slightly curved.  The flowers are white to pale purple and the flavor is excellent.

Caraway Thyme      Thymus herba-barona
Caraway Thyme is a lovely creeping plant that has striking bright pink flowers in the spring.  It only grows four inches tall and has shiny, narrow, dark green leaves.  It is somewhat sprawling with leaves widely spaced on the stems.  It is hardy to 15 degrees F.  Caraway thyme adds flavor to breads and meat and bean dishes.

Lemon Thyme       Thymus xcitriodorus
Lemon Thyme is a must have plant for the herb garden.  The strongly lemon scented leaves flavor chicken, fish, tea, breads and vegetables.  It will add a new taste to ordinary roast beef.  Lemon thyme comes in many varieties, both upright and spreading.  The leaves are fairly broad and may be bright green or variegated yellow and green.  It is hardy to 5 degrees F.

Elfin Thyme          Thymus serpyllum 'Elfin'
This dainty plant is a low spreading form of thyme that stays under two inches tall.  The tiny, ovoid leaves form a thick carpet.  Upon close examination, the deep green leaves are slightly hairy.  Elfin Thyme has a fresh flavor with a hint of lemon, but because of its size it is not practical to use in cooking.  It is delightful when grown in a container at the base of sweet bay or rosemary topiaries.   (Ann Marie purchased this plant under the 'Elfin' name, but is uncertain of the accuracy of the identification. Comments are welcome as to other possible botanical names.)

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