It’s amazing how different each late Winter transition is into Spring. I expect to see certain plants arriving and poking their little heads cautiously up from the cold Earth, but I am always amazed at who overwintered, or is venturing an early peek. We have patches of Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), throughout our property at the Hawk and Hawthorne, crimson from the cold freezes, but still fragrant and lovely.
The Kitchen herbs don’t often get the credit they deserve. They are for more than just soup! Thyme was been an important folk medicine and magic herb from Greece, Iran, North America and almost everywhere in between. Thyme was one of the first plants I used to heal myself of illness and I can’t sing it’s praises enough. So now, it’s Thyme.
Thyme is a mint family plant native to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean but has spread throughout the world, becoming an important part of many nations folk medicine and folkloric plant practices. To the Greeks, Thyme was a symbol of courage, a belief which spread into the Middle Ages in other parts of Europe. Thyme is also a plant of the bees and it is customary to rub it on hives. In the Middle ages, even embroidering a bee and a bit of Thyme on a cloth was enough to confer courage to the knight it was gifted to.
Wild Thyme has been burned since antiquity in Greece, Mongolia and Siberia as an incense plant. Before Frankincense resin was used, Thyme was the most important incense plant in Greece. It was burned to fend off disease bringing demons, as well it should be, for it keeps away many evil and devlish things.
The sometimes reliable but never boring Madame Grieve writes,
'the name Thyme, in its Greek form, was first given to the plant as a derivative of a word which meant 'to fumigate,' either because they used it as incense, for its balsamic odour, or because it was taken as a type of all sweet-smelling herbs. Others derive the name from the Greek word thumus, signifying courage, the plant being held in ancient and mediaeval days to be a great source of invigoration, its cordial qualities inspiring courage'
It was included in the mix of special herbs strewn on the birthing bed in Germany alongside Common Bedstraw (Galium aparine). Not only was it a birth herb to be used in this manner, but it was also used as a tea to bring on the menses, the birth itself and later, pass the afterbirth. The Fae are said to love especially love Thyme, and despite its use in the birthing bed, it was, in some places, spoken of as an unlucky plant to bring indoors.
It’s use as a funerary herb may shed some light on this curious custom. The Order of the Oddfellows carried sprigs of Thyme at the funerals of their brothers, while in certain areas of England, it was customary to drop a sprig of Thyme onto the coffin before burial. It is interestingly also associated with murder, and the scent, perhaps due to its use at funerals, is said to be the scent of a murdered man’s ghost. This is curious also because that means that my chicken soup is not complete without essence of murder.
Pennsylvania Germans have a particular practice around the planting of Thyme and it is said it cannot grow and flourish if you do not sit on it after planting. If you’ve ever transplanted large carpets of Thyme, this is actually a very helpful practice, and also uniquely enjoyable.
In Scotland and England, there is a love divination that can be performed with Thyme on St. Agnes’ Night, January 20th. Take a sprig of Rosemary and one of Thyme and sprinkle them three times with water. Upon going to bed, put one in each shoe and place a shoe on each side of the bed. You must then invoke St. Agnes:
“St. Agnes that’s to lovers kind,
Come ease the troubles of my mind.”
And the future will be revealed in a dream once you drift to sleep, revealing the identity of your true love.
There are many variations of this spell and even a whole poem, by Keats, called “The Eve of St. Agnes”, which goes into fantastical detail as only Spenserian stanza can. In Spenser’s own “The Faerie Queen”, a 16th century English poem, boasting the title of near longest poem in the English language and the birthplace of the Spenserian stanza verse form, he mentions many uses of magical plants. Here he mentions the purification ritual all witches must undergo in Springtime by bathing in water infused with Oregano and Thyme,
" Till on a day (that day is every Prime,
When witches wont do penance for their crime)
I chaunst to fee her in her proper hew.
Bathing herself in Origane [Oregano] and Thyme."
Thyme is clearly magical, and this is just the tip of the Thyme-berg. Medicinally, Thyme is often overlooked I feel, due to its prowess as a culinary spice. Most spices, because of their strong aromas and flavors, hold immense medicinal power and have throughout history. Thyme is generally a go to for respiratory infections and coughs, though it has many, many other uses.
In the British Isle, it was used for coughs and respiratory ailments, and even for quite serious ones such as tuberculosis and whooping cough. Many would drink Thyme tea to calm the nerves in England, and today it is still used as a gentle nervine. It was drunk almost universally in remote parts of Scotland, and aside from being nervine, it was used to prevent bad dreams. In Suffolk, it was specific for headache. In Ireland, its use was less common but it still helped with respiratory trouble, and headache when smelled fresh, rather than drank as a tea. For Tuberculosis, an infusion was mixed with the antiviral Honeysuckle and Wild sage (1).
In America, in Southern Folk Medicine, Thyme was used to treat Typhoid with other diaphoretic plants like Sassafras root bark, pine needle, mustard seeds, boneset leaves and pennyroyal as an infusion. It was also used for promoting birth to “women in Travail”, and moving the after birth, as well as topically as a hot ointment for swellings and warts.(2) In African American folk healing Thyme was used for respiratory illnesses, as a gargle for sore throat and as a hot fresh leaf poultice for cuts, wounds and to prevent infection (3).
I like to use it for coughs and respiratory illness of all types. It has been indicated for both dry, raspy coughs and productive coughs depending on the herbal tradition, but I have personally benefited from Thyme in both cases. You can make a lovely, simple cough syrup from it by combining it with Horehound (Marrubium vulgare). I mix 2 parts Horehound dry leaf and 1 part Thyme dry leaf. Steep in freshly boiled water 15 minutes.
You can leave it longer to make a stronger infusion, but honestly it can get a bit bitter if that is off putting. If I end up with 2 cups of liquid after squeezing out the herbs, I add one cup of honey, so a 2:1 ratio of water to honey. I warm the tea in a pot gently to dissolve the honey and then pour into a very clean jar and label. This will keep in cold storage about 2 months. I take 1 tsp up to 4x a day for coughs.
I also just use the tea, simply infusing one teaspoon of dried Thyme leaf in about 1 cup of water and drinking that 3 times a day for digestive issues. For urinary tract issues like UTI, I like to combine it with Goldenrod, another favorite friend, as a tea. Thyme cleans the tubes! Whether the respiratory or the urinary tract!
Thyme is also a great ingredient in Fire Cider. You have have heard some folks have copyrighted the name of this general tonic. Check out more info here about that. Everyone can make this medicine and adding Thyme is a great way to add the respiratory and digestive powers to your immune boosting blend (4). Vinegar is a great tonic medicine and you can read more about my obsessions with all things vinegar in a post from last Spring. I love to make a just straight up Thyme infused vinegar or oxymel for medicine as well. It’s delicious, especially on mushrooms or chicken, or even as an oxymel spritzer with seltzer and ice.
You can also use Lemon Thyme in any of these recipes, many find it more palatable and it generally has similar medicinal actions due to both plant’s thymol content. Thymol is a monoterpenoid phenol that is very soluble in alcohol. It’s one of the magic chemicals in Thyme that give it it’s antibacterial and antifungal powers. This means you can make a mean (well actually very nice) tincture of Thyme as well for colic, respiratory illnesses, digestive upsets, UTI and more.
I do a fresh herb tincture the folk method, i.e. just pour brandy over fresh chopped Thyme and let it sit 4-6 weeks, shaking the jar occasionally. I take 20ish drops 2 to 3x a day for bronchitis, digestive issues with gas, and externally diluted as a wound cleanser. If you want to make a more exacting tincture try 1:5 ratio and 70% alcohol.
Thyme is divine. Whether to divine your true love with the aid of St. Agnes or to heal a gassy gut, Thyme has been medicine to many, and made our soups, stews, dressings and drink oh so warming and magical. Take heart these last few days of Winter and know that the warmth will return all too soon, and we will be wishing for the cool before we know it.
Speaking of which, Abby and I are hard at work getting ready for this year’s Sassafras School class! We’re so excited. We have a few more spaces left so don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions. We also have our Bark Eater’s class coming up February 23rd! Any excuse to cover edible and medicinal trees is a good one. We had a blast in last year’s class.
Müller-Ebeling Claudia, et al. Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants. Inner Traditions, 2003.
Pennacchio, Marcello, et al. Uses and Abuses of Plant-Derived Smoke : Its Ethnobotany As Hallucinogen, Perfume, Incense, and Medicine. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Watts, Donald. Dictionary of Plant Lore. Academic, 2007.
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