Origin & Names
Indigenous to the Mediterranean but now used the world over, thyme has many varieties to excite the palate. Most widely used is garden thyme (t.vulgaris) that we grow and use regularly here in the UK but equally pleasing are rarer varieties such as pine scented Thymus broussonetii, tangerine-tasting T caespititius. Alongside these there is also wild thyme otherwise called Za'atar which is a key component in the Za'atar blend, a regular seasoning used in Middle Eastern cooking.
Thyme has has great representation throughout history both used for embalming by the Egyptians and as incense by the Greeks. It is from the latter use that its name derives, the Greek word thymon means to fumigate. Further throughout history thyme was given to warriors to bring courage and placed beneath pillows to ward off nightmares. No wonder that thyme was the go to herb during the black death in the 1340's. Such is the endearing aroma given off from thyme that among the Greeks the phrase to smell of thyme was a sincere compliment implying gracefulness.
Geography & Cultivation
Woody and straggly, thyme is a perennial shrub that grows wild in varied conditions ranging from the hot, arid hillsides of the Mediterranean basin to the rainy, craggy UK countryside. That said thyme does grow much better when well drained and in a sunny area so not ideal for UK growing. If planting at home however, make sure the soil has adequate drainage by digging in extra horticultural grit or by using a soil based substrate.
In terms of harvest, thyme is an evergreen herb that can be picked all year round for culinary or medicinal use. If the leaves are being picked for drying, pick the springs just before flowering and hang to dry or use a dehydrator on a low temperature setting.
Picture of garden thyme growing at an organic herb farm in Penzance, Cornwall.