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Common thyme

  • Vegetables and herbs
Common thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Photo: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Josée Bouthot)



Origin and description

Common thyme grows in the wild on dry hillsides around the Mediterranean. It is a rather slow-growing plant, forming a compact shrub 10 to 30 cm high. The small leaves have curled margins and are covered in hairs. They grow on erect, spindly, woody, multi-branching stems. The pink or whitish flowers, arranged in terminal umbels, appear in early summer.

The way the reproductive organs of common thyme are arranged encourages cross pollination and hence species diversity. There are also a number of chemotypes that are very similar in appearance but have distinctive chemical constituents in their essential oils, and this is reflected in their aroma.

Species, cultivars and related plants

Main cultivars

Lemon thymes that are often associated with common thyme have been reclassified with other species. They are described under Related species and cultivars.

French thyme
T. vulgaris

The name French thyme is actually applied to various subspecies containing thymol and with curled leaf margins. Those with greyish-green leaves that are native to the Mediterranean are usually more aromatic than those with green leaves that are native to northern Europe. Most green-leaved forms are hardier than those with greyish leaves. They are known under a wide variety of names, creating a lot of confusion regarding their true identity. The following cultivars were selected and named by the DeBaggio nursery in the United States.

'Narrow-Leaf French' – upright cultivar growing to 35 to 40 cm tall; greyish leaves; lilac-coloured blossoms in spring; propagated from cuttings to assure uniformity. 

'Orange Balsam' – compact plant (30 cm); pointed dark green leaves with an aroma of balsam and oranges.

'Provencal' – upright cultivar growing to 40 cm tall and 60 to 90 cm wide; tiny, very narrow greyish-green and strongly scented leaves.

Related species and cultivars

English thyme
Thymus ‘Broad-leaf English’

Typical English thyme has flat leaves, without the slightest curl. It is hardier than French thyme, but must be propagated from cuttings because identical individuals cannot be obtained from seed.

Lemon thyme
Thymus citriodorus

Lemon thyme is a small shrub with mauve flowers. The lemony leaves are used fresh to enhance the flavour of food and herbal teas. This species was long considered a hybrid of common thyme (T. vulgaris) and creeping thyme (T. pulegioides). It was recently reclassified as a separate species. Lemon thyme and its cultivars are not hardy in Quebec.

‘Argenteus’ – ornamental, aromatic silver-green leaves

Caraway thyme
Thymus herba-barona

Caraway thyme is a small prostrate shrub with rose-pink flowers. The dark green leaves, used fresh or dried with roast beef, have a strong thyme and caraway scent. This species is not hardy in Quebec.

Doone Valley thyme
Thymus ‘Doone Valley’

This hybrid is a small, decorative, mat-forming shrub covered in rose-pink flowers in summer. New shoots turn reddish when they first start to bloom. The lemon-scented, green and yellow variegated leaves are used to flavour wines and vinegars.

Creeping thyme
Thymus pulegioides

This small creeping shrub can grow to 25 cm tall. This lemon-scented thyme is covered with small pale mauve flowers in summer. It is used in many different dishes and goes especially well with mushrooms and zucchini. A number of cultivars of lemon thyme (T. citriodorus) have been reclassified as the pulegioides species.

‘Archer’s Gold’ – Leaves with gold edges; mauve flowers  
‘Aureus’ – Yellow variegated leaves (the colours fade over the summer); mauve flowers
‘Bertram Anderson’ – Gold leaves; reddish new shoots; mauve flowers   

Silver Posie thyme
Thymus ‘Silver Posie’

This low-growing hybrid (less than 30 cm tall) is covered in greyish-green and white variegated leaves. The small pink flowers appear in late spring or early summer. Its leaves have the typical common thyme scent.

Common name

Common thyme

Latin name (genus)

Thymus vulgaris

French common name

Botanical family

  • Lamiaceae

Growing conditions

Plant thyme in full sun. Space plants 20 cm apart and leave 60 cm between rows. This genus prefers light, very well drained and slightly alkaline soil (pH between 6 and 7.5). Thyme is less aromatic and dies back more readily in heavy, wet soil. If you have clay or poorly drained soil, it is best to create a raised bed for this plant. It does not require nutrient-rich soil. For a good yield, add 2 to 3 kg/m2 of aged compost annually. This plant is drought resistant.

In spring, cut back the previous year’s stems by one half. Such rejuvenation pruning will encourage the growth of new, non-woody stems and a compact habit.

French thyme varieties with greyish leaves need winter protection. They can be grown indoors if given bright light and cool temperatures.


Although thyme is perennial, it is best to produce new plants every 2 to 3 years, because they become woody and straggly with age. Most cultivars can be propagated by division, stem cuttings or layering.

Seed: Sow indoors 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost. Seeds germinate in 6 to 8 days at 20-22oC and remain viable for 3 years.

Stem cuttings: Take a 10 cm long shoot from the tip of a stem, remove the leaves at the base of the shoot and place the bare stem in a porous, moist potting mix (e.g.: ½ potting soil and ½ perlite). Place the cuttings in a well-lit spot, out of direct sunlight, with high humidity (e.g.: sealed inside a clear plastic bag). The first roots should appear within 4 to 6 weeks. Cuttings will root faster if they are dipped in rooting hormones and the soil is kept warm.

Layering: Choose a flexible stem growing near the ground. Strip a few leaves from the centre of the stem and cover the bare part of the stem with soil.

Division: A plant may be divided if it is very bushy near the base. Divide it in spring, taking care to keep a few rooted stems in each clump.


Culinary uses: Thyme’s distinctive, sharp and pungent aroma complements a wide variety of dishes. It is used with meat, as well as with vegetables, fruit, eggs, stuffing, cheese and marinades. It is also added to Creole dishes to season fish and grilled meat.

Thyme goes well with most other herbs. It is a key ingredient in a number of herb blends: bouquet garni, herbes de Provence, Zahtar (Jordanian) and Dukka (Egyptian). Heat does not damage thyme’s flavour, so it can be added at the beginning of a recipe.

Harvesting: Harvest young, non-woody stems as soon as they start to flower.

Storage: Unlike most other culinary herbs, thyme has a stronger flavour and aroma when dried.

  • Fresh: Thyme keeps for over a week in the refrigerator when wrapped in a damp paper towel.
  • Frozen: Freeze sprigs on a cookie sheet and then store them in a freezer container.
  • Dried: Spread non-woody stems out flat or hang them upside down in small bunches in a warm, dark, well-ventilated location. Once dry, strip the leaves from the stems and store them in an opaque, airtight container.  
Pests and diseases


Root rot and damping off

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