Thyme, or Thymus, has hundreds of species both wild and cultivated, according to the Cloisters Museum & Gardens. Its uses throughout history are numerous and varied, though most sources agree that the plant has heating and drying properties, and is effective against headaches. Today, thyme is still a valuable herbal remedy and is used as an antibacterial and antifungal.
Pedanius Dioscorides, an ancient Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist who wrote De Materia Medica, recommended using a creeping thyme (such as Thymus sibthorpii), “Erpullos” or “serpyllum” on ruptures, convulsions, and liver inflammation. When steeped in vinegar, Dioscorides wrote, thyme is a good headache cure. He also believed it to be effective against snake bites. Dioscorides also recommended “Thumos,” known today as Cretan or cone-headed thyme (Thymus capitata), to battle phlegm, worms, asthma, blood clots, warts, poor sight, and more.
In Physica, Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen also reports on the medicinal value of two types of thyme, or thymus. Thymus vulgaris is our most common garden thyme today and likely the first of the two types she discusses. Hildegard describes thyme as warming and drying in action and claims it is a good restorative for leprosy, palsy, and lice when used in an ointment. By combining the thyme with some of its soil, Hildegard claims that it can be boiled for a steam bath or sauna, whereupon “The heat and dryness of this herb, heated with the dry earth diminishes bad humors, unless it is not pleasing to God.” Furthermore, Hildegard explains that those with rheumy eyes should stare at thyme until their eyes water; this will clean and purify them, giving some relief to the person afflicted.
The second type of Thyme Hildegard discusses is a wild, creeping species referred to as “quenula,” likely our Thymus serpyllum. This species, she says, also heats and dries, but not so much as the first “thymus.” If eaten as a puree or mixed in meats, it will purify unhealthy skin, and when mixed with lard it can alleviate rough skin.
Thyme is still a popular herb grown in gardens, whether for its medicinal value, the flavor it adds to different dishes, or simply the aromatic fragrance it produces. Gardeners looking to grow thyme should consider four of the most common species: Thymus serpyllum (creeping), Thymus coccineus (matted), Thymus vulgaris (common, for cooking), or Thymus citriodorus (golden lemon).