As autumn strips leaves in their fiery vibrance from tree limbs and chills the air with wrapping winds, we at Cloud 9 turn our attention to winterizing: preparing the rooftop and our bodies for the seasonal descent of the sun’s energy. One of our favorite plants to work with during this transition is the modest but resilient thyme (Thymus vulgaris, Thymus spp.), which helps bolster the immune system from the influence of cold, windy, and damp conditions (what the Chinese call “pernicious influences” in Traditional Chinese Medicine) (1).
This aromatic, woody shrub – of which there are more than 400 varieties – overwinters well as a low-growing perennial of the mint (Lamiaceae) family with small green leaves that bear a spicy, pungent fragrance. Native to the Mediterranean, thyme derives its Latin name from the Greek thyo meaning “perfume” or thumusmeaning “strength or courage” (2). The variety we’ve had growing on the roof is lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus), which in addition to its spiciness from the constituent thymol, also has a relatively sweet lemon aromatic overtone from neural and germinal (4).
Thyme grows best in full sun and well-drained soils with a good supply of grit or rocks added. It tolerates dry conditions remarkably well – which we can attest to on the dry hot roof! As with other perennial woody shrubs, as the season progresses from spring to fall, the softwood growth that gives the stem its flexibility and bright green color turns rigid and brown as it becomes hardwood in the colder months. To maintain the plant well, prune the plant back in the spring by one third, clipping right above new growth where it appears (3). In the fall/winter, mulch over to protect the plant from winter damage.
Thyme can be propagated by seed and stem cuttings. To take cuttings, clip green softwood growth of 4-5 inches in length and remove the bottom third of leaves on the stem. Dip in a rooting hormone and plant in a well-draining material like perlite that has been adequately watered. Provide a plastic bag or lid cover to maintain humidity until the cuttings root in a couple of weeks (4).
Medicinally, thyme and thymol have been investigated in clinical trials for its antimicrobial properties – especially useful for inflamed mucous membranes of the mouth and throat. Thymol is one of the antimicrobial ingredients found widely in mouthwash Listerine. A tea made from thyme can be used as a gargle to receive laryngitis, tonsillitis, and sore throats; when drank, the tea as an expectorant helps encourage clearing of the lungs from heavy congestion, bronchitis, and laryngitis and its spicy pungent volatile oils act to alleviate gas in the digestive system and infections in the sinus cavities (5).
The next time you have a sore or itchy throat so common to the season, try making a fresh thyme gargle! Infuse 1 TB of chopped fresh or 2 tsp of dried leaves in boiling water. Allow to cool to a comfortable temperature and gargle! For extra oomph, try adding a tsp of sea salt.
For extended storage, dry fresh clippings of thyme stems in a paper bag until crisp and strip leaves from the stem and store in a jar in your cupboard until you’re ready for it.
Let us know how it goes! Wishing you vibrant wellness and strength this season!
– Alyssa Schimmel, Cloud 9 Co-Farm Manager and Herbal Specialist