Plant of the Week: One of the original medicinal plants of the Mediterranean

Name: Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

Otherwise known as: Garden thyme

Habitat: An aromatic shrub of the Labiateae family with woody stems, tiny leaves and pink flowers, growing to about 50cm in sparce soil. Originally native to southern Europe, now grown worldwide.

What does it do: This is one of the original medicinal plants of the Mediterranean region – the ancient Egyptians used it in their embalming process, and Hippocrates and Dioscorides recommended it in the treatment of scabies and lice, and used it to fumigate against infectious diseases.

Its name derives from the Greek ‘thymos’ meaning ‘to perfume’. It was thought to increase courage, and at the time of the crusades it would be attached to the armour of the knights by their womenfolk.

Victorian gardeners crushed the fresh plant and used it as a compress to treat minor wounds, scabies and warts.

Thyme contains a volatile oil, mainly comprising thymol and carvacrol, flavanoids and phenolic acids. This makes the plant anti-oxidant, antiseptic, antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, anti-parasitic, tonic and expectorant.

It is used in the treatment of infections of the respiratory organs and the urinary tract. Thyme is a traditional cure for whooping cough, bronchitis, pleurisy, and is also applied as a preventive for bed-wetting in young children. Many claim to have benefited from regular consumption of thyme tea in overcoming irritable bowel syndrome and grumbling appendix. Herbalists recommend thyme to assist in breaking alchohol addiction. A gargle can be made from the plant to treat sore throats and mouth ulcers.

Recent research indicates the plant and its essential oil exercise a powerful influence over the body’s ageing process, by way of maintaining higher levels of fatty acids reaching the brain.

Applied topically, thyme gives relief in cases of asthma and hay fever, bites and stings, ringworm and athletes foot, thrush, scabies and lice.

Infusing thyme in a hot bath is a traditional method of treating exhaustion and fatigue.

The oil from thyme is used in mouth washes, toothpaste, and cough lozenges. The thymol content is isolated to make surgical dressings and disinfectants, soaps, aftershaves and other toiletries. It is extensively used in the food industry as a flavouring agent and is a constituent of the liqueur Benedictine.


Alexander McCowan is author of the World’s most Dangerous Plants