Notes from the Apothecary: Thyme
Thyme is a Mediterranean shrub with rich history that belies its small stature. From being used to in Ancient Egyptian embalming to being the main ingredient in your mouth rinse at the dentist, thyme is a powerful, beautiful herb with surprising and magical qualities.
The Kitchen Garden
Thyme is absolutely delicious. Despite its Mediterranean origins, the herb is widely used in many different cuisines today, adding its pungent flavour and aroma to roast meats, stews, pasta, pizza and even curry.
Culpeper believed the herb was a remedy for flatulence which would certainly be one reason why it has been used as a food additive throughout the ages!
As well as common thyme there are orange, lemon and lime thymes, which can lend a lovely, citrus flavour to your meals. Thymus is a diverse and tasty family, well worth the thyme to propagate in your own green patch.
Growing thyme is fairly easy if you have a sunny spot. If you don’t have a garden, you should be able to manage with a sunny windowsill. Soak the seeds in water overnight, then plant them (indoors, in pots) in a mixture of compost and sand or grit, to allow for good drainage. The roots of thyme will hang onto rocks and small stones, so don’t worry about the soil being too lumpy. As long as there’s no clay and water can drain freely, you should be fine. Once the seedlings are a few inches tall you should be able to transplant them to a sunny spot in the garden, making sure again that there is plenty of drainage and space for the plant to spread.
If you struggle to germinate the seeds, you can take cuttings from an existing plant. Choose a healthy stem with plenty of leaves that looks healthy and free from disease or blight. Cut cleanly, just below some leaves. Ideally take several cuttings to increase your chances. Remove the leaves from the bottom inch of the stem (save them for cooking or crafting!) and place the cut end into a small pot of warm, moist compost. Firm the soil around the cutting to hold it in place. You can buy powder to help the roots develop but I would recommend trying without to start with.
Dioscorides, the renowned creator of Materia Medica, tells us that a mixture of salt, vinegar and thyme would help expel ‘phlegmy matter’ through the bowels. He also recommended thyme for those with asthma, and for aiding in childbirth where the child was stuck, or the afterbirth could not be expelled. He advised to mix the herb with honey.
Much later, in his Complete herbal, Culpeper backed Dioscorides up on the use for asthma, calling thyme the ‘strengthener of the lungs’. He also corroborates Dioscorides’ theory that thyme is useful for expelling phlegm. Additionally, he advised using it to ease indigestion and flatulence, and also as a relief for those suffering with gout.
During the pandemic of the 14th century, commonly known as the Black Death, thyme was widely used to treat the blisters caused by the plague and as a general antiseptic. Today, we know that thyme does indeed have strong antiseptic properties and the chemicals found in thyme are used widely in the cleaning product industry and as fungicides.
At home, cooled thyme tea can be used as an effective mouth rinse for mouth ulcers and gargling with it can help clear out the beginnings of a sore throat, as it can kill the nasty bacteria lurking around back there. Washing your hair with thyme will leave it shiny and smelling beautiful, and using the infusion (cooled!) to wash your face can even clear up spots and blemishes.
Thymol, the chemical found in thyme, is a proven powerful antiseptic, used in many products including wipes and sprays. The active ingredient, thymol, can be toxic at high concentrations, such as the level needed to turn the chemical into in fungicides. In particular thymol can irritate the eyes.
One of my local universities, Leeds Metropolitan, discovered that thyme can be beneficial in treating acne, which makes sense when you think about the antibacterial properties of the plant.
Since the 1970s scientists have been studying thyme to after discovering it has a remarkable ability to adapt to changing environments, particularly sudden changes in temperature. It is thought that thyme and similar long lived perennial plants may be very minimally affected by climate change, although the genetic changes cause differences in the taste and smell of the plant
The Witch’s Kitchen
Culpeper notes in his herbal that the herb is associated with Venus, and he attributes the health benefits in labour to this. This association tells us that thyme is a very feminine plant, with strong connections to love, beauty, fertility and desire. So for those of you with a penchant for love spells, you could do worse than adding a few leaves of thyme to the mix.
Venus is also associated with magic, particularly the manipulation of divine forces, so if you are invoking or evoking a deity, try smudging your sacred space with thyme or using it as part of your incense.
Venus is a symbol of balance; of the way water quenches fire to produce steam. Thyme therefore represents the magical combination of things, and the power of transformation. Use thyme to reinforce magic for luck in new endeavours, such as interviews, moving house, new relationships; not when trying for a baby though, because of the ancient associations with miscarriage.
Venus is a creation of the sea, and as such her herb thyme is also deeply associated with water. Leave a sprig of thyme at the western corner of your altar in recognition of this.
Water is also a transformative element, and particularly associated with psychic abilities and dreams. Thyme is used to manipulate dreams, usually to dispel the negative.
The Victorians believed that thyme was a sign of fairies. Find a patch of wild thyme was proof that fairies had been dancing on that spot. Use thyme in rituals that involve communicating with the Fae, or with the Tuatha de Danaan, as the herb will strengthen your connection to the otherworldly.
Home and Hearth
Here are some exercises for you to try at home. Suffering from bad dreams? Make a small pocket or tiny pillow. I would take a rectangle of fabric, fold it in half and sew it shut except for a tiny hole, small enough to slip something inside. If this is stretching you crafting abilities too far, simply a fold of tissue or a small envelope will do.
Place thyme leaves inside the pillow or envelope, all the while envisioning your self falling into a deep, relaxing sleep. Place the tiny pillow under or inside your own pillow on your bed. As you drift off to sleep that night, focus on the tiny, beautiful and aromatic leaves and you should find you sleep untroubled, if not immediately, certainly after a few nights. A good night to start this is the new moon, as the darker tide of the moon is for inner reflection and changes within one’s self.
Bundle and hang sprigs of thyme in a room that has a negative energy; a room that feels cold, depressing or makes you feel on edge. As well as being a natural antiseptic, thyme is a supernatural cleanser, and will ‘mop out’ a space and make it feel wholesome and welcoming again. Hang the bunch from new moon to dark moon, then take the thyme outside and burn or bury it. This signals the end of the fumigation, and the destruction of the negativity the sacred plant has absorbed.
I Never Knew…
Thymol, the active ingredient in thyme, is widely used in beekeeping. The essential oil of thyme can be used to control the nasty varroa mite that can cause viruses in honey bees. Thymol can also be added to the sugar feed given to honey bees to stop the syrup fermenting or developing mould or fungus. So thyme feeds us all in more ways than one!