Thyme: profile, flowers & origin


For many years now, I have been growing various vegetables as a hobby in my spare time, which is what ultimately led me to studying horticulture. I find it fascinating to watch as plants grow from seed to fruit and to then finally be able to make use of the literal fruits of my labour.

Favourite fruit: Strawberries and cherries
Favourite vegetable: Potatoes, tomatoes and garlic

Thyme is a popular Mediterranean herb that is essential in any herb garden. Its aroma enhances dishes, and its flowers attract a variety of insects.

Thyme inflorescences in bloom
A thyme bush belongs in every herb garden [Photo: Emilio100/]

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a classic among garden herbs. It thrives both in a pot on a windowsill and in a garden bed. Discover everything you need to know about this perennial herb.

Thyme: origin and properties

The name “thyme” is derived from the Greek word Thymos, which means to smoke or to offer incense, and it is a symbol of courage, strength and sacrifice. Botanically, thyme belongs to the Lamiaceae family along with other popular herbs such as sage (Salvia) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). It is also known as garden thyme and common thyme. Thyme originally comes from the Mediterranean region. As early as the Middle Ages, Benedictine monks brought thyme over the Alps into their monastery gardens, from where it spread to other parts of the world.

Today, several thyme varieties still grow wild in parts of Europe, including large thyme (Thymus pulegioides), mother of thyme (Thymus praecox), rock thyme (Thymus alpinus) and Breckland thyme (Thymus serpyllum). Find out more about the different thyme species and varieties in our dedicated article.

The benefits of thyme as a medicinal herb have been known for a long time, and it is still used to treat colds and stomach complaints. Thyme is also a popular herb for cooking; its essential oils unfurl a Mediterranean flavour that pairs nicely with meat and fish dishes.

Thyme growing on a hillside
Thyme originated in the Mediterranean [Photo: jackbolla/]

Flowers and leaves

At 10 to 40 centimetres tall, thyme grows as a small, bushy, evergreen shrub. Depending on the species, the growth is either upright or creeping. Thyme plants have extensive root systems, and quickly form runners. Its four-edged twigs are strongly branching and become increasingly woody with age. The twigs bear small, short, elliptical leaves that are somewhat curled at the edges. Thyme leaves are typically silver-green, but this depends on the variety. The leaves are not hairy, but they do have oil glands that contain the essential oils that give thyme its distinctive aroma.

Thyme shrubs flower from June to October. During this time, the herb produces inflorescences with small pale pink to light purple flowers. Thyme flowers are typically labiate, consisting of five petals and four stamens. After flowering, dark brown ovoid nutlets develop, each containing several seeds.

Close-up of thyme flowers
The typical labiate flowers bloom pink or purple [Photo: Petr Ganaj/]

Is thyme bee-friendly? Yes, thyme is bee friendly. With its pink two-lipped flowers, it attracts not only bees but also a whole host of other insects. It is an important food source for wild bees in particular. Butterflies also take advantage of the high nectar value of thyme flowers.

A bee inspecting thyme flowers
Thyme bushes are great bee pastures [Photo: jlf06/]

Is thyme perennial?

Thyme is a perennial dwarf shrub. After taking a break over winter, thyme herbs sprout again as the temperatures rise in spring. Compared to other thyme species, common thyme is quite frost-hardy and can withstand temperatures as low as -23 °C. Lavender thyme (Thymus thracicus), caraway thyme (Thymus herba-barona) and lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus), on the other hand, are not as hardy. You can find out all about overwintering thyme here.

Thyme shoots growing leaves
After winter, thyme sprouts anew [Photo: Shaplov Evgeny/]

Plants that are easily confused with thyme: Plants that belong to the thyme genus (Thymus) are usually easy to recognise and are rarely confused with other plants. The main characteristics of thyme herbs are an intense aroma from their essential oil thymol, small leaves, semi-upright creeping growth, and the pale pink or purple two-lipped flowers. On the other hand, distinguishing between plants within the genus can be difficult. Breckland thyme, which has a milder aroma, is often confused with common thyme.

Breckland thyme growing among grass
Breckland thyme also grows wild and looks very similar to common thyme [Photo: Cora Mueller/]

Is thyme poisonous?

No, thyme is not poisonous. The active ingredient thymol contained in thyme is slightly toxic but for the toxin to make any impact, a very large amount of thyme must be ingested. If it is used simply as a culinary or medicinal herb, it is completely harmless. During pregnancy, however, you should avoid thyme tea and thyme products, as the essential oils have a relaxing effect on the uterine muscles and can trigger premature contractions. Thyme is safe for pets such as dogs and cats. In some cases, small amounts can even have beneficial effects such as stimulating digestion and increasing the well-being of your pets. Thyme species used as ground cover are also non-toxic − they are simply not used as a spice because they do not have the typical thyme flavour.

Thyme essential oil and leaves
A standard dose of thyme is harmless to humans and animals [Photo: Madeleine Steinbach/]

Would you like to grow thyme on your balcony or in your garden? Find instructions and tips on how to plant thyme here.

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