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Creeping Thyme

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Picture of wooly thyme.

Picture of wooly thyme. Click "More Images" to open mini-photo gallery.

David Beaulieu

Taxonomy of Creeping Thyme Plants:

Plant taxonomy classifies the many varieties of the herb, thyme under the genus, Thymus. Let's use creeping thymes as an example:

  • "Caraway" thyme and creeping lemon thyme are classified as Thymus herba-barona
  • "Spicy Orange" thyme as Thymus x 'Spicy Orange'
  • "White" creeping thyme as Thymus praecox 'Albiflorus'
  • "Red" creeping thyme as Thymus serpyllum 'Coccineus'
  • Wooly thyme (also spelled, "woolly thyme") as Thymus pseudolanuginosus

Plant Type:

Thymes are perennials in moderate climates. They can be either upright (rather shrubbish) or creeping (rather vinish). One of the shortest is appropriately named, "Elfin." I focus here on creeping thyme herb plants because they are more useful in landscaping, serving as effective ground covers. Thymes are considered herbs, and most of them are aromatic.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zones for Creeping Thyme:

Spicy Orange thyme, creeping lemon thyme and Caraway thyme are best grown in zones 5-9. Red thyme and white thyme are suitable for zones 4-9. Wooly thyme is listed for zones 6-8.

Characteristics:

Thyme is an indigenous plant in Eurasia but has naturalized in parts of North America. Like their upright counterparts, creeping thymes bear leaves that offer a relatively delicate texture for landscape design considerations. Spicy Orange thyme, creeping lemon thyme and Caraway thyme all bear pink blooms and stay short (4" or less). Red creeping thyme and white creeping thyme attain a height similar to these. Wooly thyme may reach 6" in height, but don't worry: it doesn't spread quickly.

Sun and Soil Requirements for Creeping Thyme:

Creeping thyme herb plants grow best in a soil with an alkaline pH. It is a must that soil be well-drained, too! And far from craving fertilizer, they seem to crave poor soils, like most herb plants. Grow these herb plants in full sun if possible, although they will tolerate a bit of shade.

Uses for Creeping Thyme:

A versatile plant, it has 4 primary uses:

  1. As ground cover for weed control in landscaping
  2. As fragrant plants in a landscape devoted to aromas
  3. In the kitchen to season food
  4. Medicinally

#1 above pertains specifically to creeping thymes, which are generally less likely to be used in cooking than other varieties.

Herbalists have long known of thyme's medicinal qualities, using it as an antiseptic. Listerine contains a compound called, "Thymol," which is derived from thyme!

Culinary Uses:

As an herb, thyme is used to flavor not only meats, but also soups and stews, olives and olive oil, breads and desserts.

If you'll be growing thyme for culinary purposes, note that you can use it either fresh or dried. If you're going to dry thyme leaves, wait till after the plant has bloomed, then harvest the fresh growth. Harvest in the early morning, after the dew has evaporated. Bundle up a few springs and hang them out of direct light in a dry place indoors (e.g., an attic). When completely dry, they can be stored in an air-tight container.

Herbs in Landscape Design:

Creeping thyme plants generally stay short and can be effective ground covers. Some folks go as far as using them as grass alternatives. A more common use of these herb plants is as a ground cover to fill in the spaces between stepping stones, although Caraway thyme may be too aggressive for this purpose. Wooly thyme, which has silvery foliage, may be a better choice in tight areas. This slow grower won't engulf your stones so quickly in a mass of foliage.

Wildlife Attracted to Thyme Plants -- Hymettian Honey:

Butterflies and bees are attracted to this herb. In fact, according to Botanical.com, "The affection of bees for Thyme is well known and the fine flavour of the honey of Mount Hymettus near Athens was said to be due to the Wild Thyme with which it was covered (probably T. vulgaris), the honey from this spot being of such especial flavour and sweetness that in the minds and writings of the Ancients, sweetness and Thyme were indissolubly united."

More:

English thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is the best-known variety; in fact, among its other nicknames are "common thyme" and "garden thyme." But English thyme grows upright, to a height of 12"; while the focus of my observations here is on plants that hug the ground.

Creeping lemon thyme exudes a lemony scent and taste.

The closely-related Caraway thyme stays shorter (reaching just 1"-2"). Its fragrance and taste resembles that of caraway seeds. If you find Caraway thyme too aggressive for filling in the gaps between stepping stones, just transplant it to an open spot where a more traditional, vigorous ground cover is needed.

Spicy Orange thyme has narrow, bluish-green leaves. Its very name reveals its citrusy fragrance and taste.

White and red thymes, planted en masse, provide a fine floral display. The bloom color of Red thyme is lavender, however, not red; but its stems and leaves are darker than those of white thyme, and perhaps this helps account for its name. Wooly thyme, meanwhile, is grown for its soft, silvery foliage.

Additional "flavors" include lime, oregano, lavender and coconut. Some types bear variegated foliage. "Flavors" here can refer either to taste or fragrance. Of the examples I discuss above, lemon, Spicy Orange and common thyme are perhaps the best examples of fragrant plants.

Despite its strong associations with ancient Greece for some of us, the recorded use of thyme goes back even further, in fact, to ancient Sumer and Egypt! For many in the modern world, however, mention of "thyme" invariably evokes the line, "parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" from Simon and Garfunkel's 1966 hit, "Scarborough Fair."

Its compact stature, durability and aromatic quality all make creeping thyme a wonderful ground cover to plant between garden stepping stones. As your feet brush against the thyme, its fragrance will be released! The Elizabethan writer, Francis Bacon had this fact in mind when he refers to thyme in his essay, Of Gardens. In listing desirable plants, Bacon mentions

[T]hose which perfume the air most delightfully, not passed by as the rest, but being trodden upon and crushed, are three; that is, burnet, wild-thyme, and watermints. Therefore you are to set whole alleys of them, to have the pleasure when you walk or tread.

Related Video
Tips for Growing Thyme
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