Plant of the month: Why every garden should grow thyme

Green thyme plant leaves against a white table

It grows wild in Central Otago, but plant one of these hardy herbs in your garden and a flavour burst will be only a snip away.

When the wild thyme blooms in Central Otago, it spreads a purple haze across the landscape. Walk through it and you’ll be enveloped by its scent. Local legend has it that a French gold miner planted it in his kitchen garden in the 1860s. It escaped and spread far and wide, because the hot, dry Central Otago climate suits this small-leafed plant, which originated in the Mediterranean.

Thyme has been valued through the ages. Ancient Egyptians used it for embalming and it was also thought to bestow courage, so in the Middle Ages knights carried it into battle. Used medicinally for centuries, thyme essential oil is said to have antiseptic and antifungal properties and it’s been used for everything from acne to headaches, and insect bites to warts.

As Central Otago’s pioneering gold miner knew, thyme has many uses in the kitchen, although it’s best to go easy, as it can be overpowering. It pairs well with lamb and any kind of Mediterranean vegetables, is used in the classic French herb combo, bouquet garni, and in za’atar, a versatile Middle Eastern herb blend. Try chopped thyme sprinkled over potatoes before roasting. It’s best to strip the leaves off, as the stems can be twiggy, although you can throw whole sprigs into casseroles and pick out the stems before serving.

Best of all, bees love it, and this tough herb is super-easy to grow – it virtually thrives on neglect. Look out for different varieties, including lemon thyme, pizza thyme (which tastes a bit like oregano) as well as classic common thyme.

‘Just as bees make honey from thyme, the strongest and driest of herbs, so do the wise profit from the most difficult of experiences.’ – Plato


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