There is a tiny, quite bedraggled patch of thyme at the allotment. Given the usefulness of this herb in the kitchen, I must try harder to get a better patch established and growing well – which calls for sand and grit.
There are three thymes which grow wild in Britain – Thymus serpyllum, T. pulegioides and Acinos arvensis, or Basil Thyme – and all can be used in cooking. Stronger in flavour than any of them is Garden Thyme, or thymus vulgaris, which comes from the western Mediterranean and southern Italy and is a most useful plant. Being a native of a warm climate, it is more flavoursome than the native thymes, and is one definitely to be used in the simmering pot. It would have been an easy traveller in the knapsack or (p.98) baggage of returning pilgrims [from the Crusades]. The plant is part of a huge genus, with over 350 species in it, and in trying to codify their differences botanists have divided the plants into two groups: the carpeting and wild thymes; and the cultivated species. They all belong to the Labiatae family.
All thymes are bee-friendly plants, and the native species must have been noted for that trait alone, long before there were cultivated plants growing in the garden. One of the native plants, T. serpyllum, is the herb Shakespeare referred to when he wrote, ‘I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows.’ It is sometimes know as Shepherd’s Thyme, and was believed to bring ill luck if brought into the home. As with many sweet-smelling flowers, it was often thought that the souls of the dead resided in the blooms. It is just as well, therefore, that no such notions are attached to T. vulgaris, the pot herb of the bouquet garni.
The Garden Thyme must have also been used as a strewing herb to ward off the plague; certainly when it is crushed or brushed against, it gives off a warm sunshine fragrance that reminds one of summer days. It was one of the herbs used to make up the posies distributed on Maundy thursday to keep any smell at bay during the ceremony of the washing of the feet, a custom going back to the fifteenth century. Today, the Queen’s posy is made up by the Queen’s Herbalist and also includes the sweet-smelling rosemary. Several of the cultivated thymes were recommended by John Evelyn to ‘improve and ameliorate the Aer about London.’ The Crusaders carried it with them on their journeys, and it was sen ton its way with the first settlers to America to give them courage. It was an old belief that not only the plant but even the word itself was a source of strength: the Latin word thymus comes from the Greek derivative thumos, which means ‘courage.’
(The Origin of Plants, pp 97-97.)