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Common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a perennial subshrub of the Lamiaceae family that prefers stony ground and sun-drenched garrigues.
Growing to a height of seven to twenty centimetres, it has woody cylindrical stems arranged in clumps or dense bushes. Its small greyish leaves are oval and lanceolate; its highly melliferous flowers blossom in spikes at the leaf axils. Wild thyme, or shepherd's thyme, possesses similar properties.
For thousands of years, humans have used thyme, that grows wild around the whole Mediterranean basin, to cure themselves and to enhance the flavour of their food. The Egyptians used it for embalming and Crete and Cyprus, laboratory islands for aromatic plants, ascribed great importance to this plant beloved by Aphrodite. The Romans used it in their toilet waters and beauty creams. A legend arose from the bitterness of thyme: it arose from the tears of the beautiful Helen, tormented by remorse for having caused the Trojan war. The fact that bees should make such a sweet honey from this bitterness impelled Plutarch to claim that, in this, they resembled "brave men able to derive benefit from their austere way of life". Taken as an infusion, thyme is one of the favourite "grandmother's medicine" remedies, used against considerable number of ailments, from indigestion to whooping cough.
Cultivation and production
Worldwide thyme exchanges are estimated at two thousand tonnes per year. It is cultivated in France over nearly three hundred hectares, though it is faced with increasing competition from Turkey, Poland, Morocco and Spain.
The odour of thyme, whose strength varies with variety, is both grassy and spicy. It is so pleasant that the plant derives its name from the Greek thyo, "to smell good, embalm".
Extraction and yield
The steam distillation of the flowering tops of thyme gives a yield of 1.7 to 2.5%, i.e. seventeen hundred grams to two kilograms of essential oil from one hundred kilograms of plant.
A distinguishing feature of thyme is that it possesses seven main chemotypes, each of which has a strong dominant (alpha-terpineol, thymol, geraniol, linalool, paracymene and thujanol). The main active constituent of essential oil of Thymus vulgaris thymoliferum is a phenol (thymol).
Thyme is a potent antiseptic, antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal and anti-parasite agent. As such, it is used to treat "difficult" infections, both ENT, genito-urinary, respiratory and digestive. It is also an immune stimulant and general tonic; as such, it is recommended in cases of flu and fatigue.
geraniol (Thymus vulgaris geranioliferum), linalool (Thymus vulgaris linaloliferum), paracymene (Thymus vulgaris paracymeniferum), thujanol (Thymus vulgaris thujanoliferum), alpha-terpineol (Thymus vulgaris L. terpineoliferum), carvacrol (Thymus vulgaris L. carvacroliferum).
Other related species
Thymus satureioides, Spanish thyme (Thymus mastichina), wild thyme (Thymus serpyllum).
Excerpts from the book « Aromatherapia – Tout sur les huiles essentielles », by Isabelle Pacchioni. Aroma Thera Editions.