Although small in stature and somewhat prosaic today, the history and medicinal uses of the herb thyme are impressive. This little herb’s long story “dates back as far as 2750 BC with Sumerian cuneiform tablets suggesting that thyme be dried and pulverized with pears, figs and water for use as a poultice. The Egyptians used it to embalm their dead, and the Romans threw Thyme on their floors to deter venomous creatures. The Benedictine monks added Thyme to their elixirs for its health supportive benefits.” ( Used in plagues and world wars, thyme is still wildly beloved today.

By Varuni Sutton

Ayurvedic Student at Ayurved Sadhana

Historically, thyme seems to be most notably featured in Greek and Roman culture, but makes appearances in Egyption, Persian and other ancient civilizations as well. Native to the northern shores of the Mediterranean, “thyme is the common name for any of the about 350 species of aromatic, perennial herbs and low shrubs comprising the flowering plant genus Thymus of the mint family.” ( In the Greek language, thymon means “fumigate,” thymos pertains to either “smoke” or “spirit” and thumus means “courage.” It’s popularity during the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans ranged from medicinal to metaphysical to even to spiritual uses.

Ancient Greeks strongly believed in the powers of thyme and used it in battle to restore physical strength and vitality, promote bravery and relieve melancholy. Stories abound of soldiers rubbing the herb on their chest before combat, while women gifted sprigs of the unassuming shrub to honor courageous acts. The Greek phrase “to smell of thyme” was as used as praise. Thyme used as an incense was important for ritual altar fires, in order to purify the sacrifices to the gods. Other uses of thyme by the ancient Greeks was to perfume and enrich massage and bath oils. Greeks and Romans considered that burning the sacred herb would improve perception and strength of mind, as well as purify the air of contamination.

Thyme flowers, full of fragrance and nectar, attract bees – ancient Greeks believed bees that fed on thyme flowers produced the sweetest of all honeys.

“The Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder recommended the burning of the dry herb in the home to put to flight all venomous creatures.” (Hanrahan and Odle 2005)

Later on, during the the Middle Ages, ladies would embroider a sprig of thyme on the scarves of their knights as a sign of bravery. Thyme was used to combat the plagues that swept through Europe during the 15th through the 17th centuries and, as recently as World War I, the essential oil was used as an antiseptic on surgical dressings to treat battle wounds. (Hanrahan and Odle 2005).

In the 1990s, Scottish researchers found lab animals fed with thyme oil aged more slowly than those who did not receive it. (Desk Reference to Natural Medicine, National Geographic Society, (2006)

“Avishan” is Persian for thyme, which has been in use for thousands of years. You can find thyme tea in most cafes throughout Iran today, where it is used as a cure for sore throats, asthma, as an antibacterial and digestive. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, a Sanskrit scholar and expert Vedantist, also recommends chewing “a little thyme after meals” as a cure for asthma.

Thyme’s leading medical use is for it’s antibiotic and digestive properties, but it also has an abundance of vitamins and minerals – Calcium, Iron, Manganese, Magnesium, Potassium, Selenium, Vitamin-A, Vitamin-K, Vitamin-E and Vitamin-C. It is used as a healing remedy for treating respiratory infections such as bronchitis, sore throat, and dry cough. Thyme is a powerful cough suppressant and expectorant and has “antiseptic, analgesic, diuretic, antispasmodic, and diaphoretic (increases perspiration) properties,” as well. (Hanrahan and Odle 2005)

“This potent herb is rich in plant phenols, thymol, and carvacrol — active antimicrobial agents — that gently soothe and aid in healing the bronchial tract by thinning mucus and combating bacteria so it can be expelled. These antimicrobial agents also have been used to treat ailments in the mouth such as canker sores and bad breath.”

Thyme can be used in the form of a tincture, tea, salve, syrup, or by steam inhalation to treat respiratory infections. To treat inflammation of the throat, a tea of thyme is cooled then gargled. “Thyme tea, taken warm, also is used for relief of menstrual pain and to relieve diarrhea, and a warm infusion can relieve migraine headaches and colic, and expel worms.” (Hanrahan and Odle 2005).

Many cultures have used thyme traditionally as a digestive aid to relieve intestinal cramping, indigestion, bloating, and gas. Thymol stimulates contractions of smooth muscle tissue along the digestive tract to help prevent food from stagnating in the stomach or intestines. The antimicrobial agents present in this herb also help support a healthy balance of beneficial gut bacteria.

With all the metaphysical and medical uses aside, thyme is most famous today as an herb to flavor cooking. Used in both it’s raw and cooked form, even the flowering tops are used in food preparation.

Some consider thyme as having an earthy and gentle flavor — with minty, and lemony tones, while Ayurveda considers it mostly pungent with, depending on the cultivar, astringent and bitter tones as well. Thyme is a basic ingredient in Spanish, French, Italian, Turkish, and Persian cuisines. It is also widely used in Lebanese and Caribbean

The French use thyme liberally and it is one of the ingredients in the spice mix herbes de Provence, in the the “bouquet garni,” a bundle of herbs wrapped in a cheesecloth that is added to the pot while cooking and removed before serving. Very popular in North African and Middle Eastern cuisine, thyme is the principal component of the spice mix za’atar, which also contains toasted sesame seeds, sumac and salt. As with bay, thyme is slow to release its flavors so it is usually added early in the cooking process. More than one hundred varieties exist including lemon thyme, orange thyme, silver thyme and anise thyme.

Thyme is generally safe when used in small amounts in culinary preparations, but in large amounts, it can act as a uterine stimulate. Therefore pregnant women generally should not use the herb, tincture, or essential oil. (Hanrahan and Odle 2005).

Another common usage of thyme is as an essential oil, which is made up of 20-55% thymol (HerbMed). “Thymol, a crystalline phenol, is a powerful and proven antibiotic and antiseptic that enhances the immune system and fights infection” (Hanrahan and Odle 2005); it is the main active ingredient in Listerine mouthwash (Pierce 1999). Before the advent of modern antibiotics, thyme oil was used to medicate bandages (Grieve 1931). It has also been shown to be effective against the fungi that commonly infects toenails (Ramsewak et al. 2003) and causes athletes’ foot (Hanrahan and Odle 2005). Externally applied, the essential oil is considered good for health maintenance of the teeth and gums and for relieving toothache (Hanrahan and Odle 2005). The essential oil is used as a massage oil to relieve rheumatism, gout, and sciatica, and as chest rub to break up inflammation of the mucous membrane (catarrh) of the upper respiratory tract (Hanrahan and Odle 2005).” []

It is said that diffusing thyme essential oil uplifts the mood buy boosting dopamine and serotonin. But, thyme essential oil should not be taken internally without proper dilution. Irresponsibly excessive use of pure essential oil is “toxic, causing such complications as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, headache, and dizziness, and even slowing the heartbeat, depressing respiration, and lowering body temperature (Hanrahan and Odle 2005). Externally, in undiluted form it may cause skin irritation, and can be diluted before use to prevent this. (Hanrahan and Odle 2005)

There are some 400 or so different species of thyme, which grows in many areas around the world, but prefers dry, rocky soil. It is cultivated commercially in Europe, especially Hungary, Turkey and Germany. “Garden thyme likes a hot sunny location with well-drained soil. It is planted in the spring and thereafter grows as a perennial.” (GG 2007) It can be propagated by seed, cuttings, or by dividing rooted sections of the plant,  but stem cuttings may be the easiest method. It tolerates drought well. Other varieties of  thyme are grown for the purposes of collecting it’s seeds, instead of leaves, such as with chia.

While not much is written about thyme in Ayurvedic specific texts, I believe thyme’s rasa is katu, guna is laghu, ruksha and tikshna, virya is ushna and vipak is katu and is advisable in cases of severe cough, including whooping cough, bad breath, indigestion,
gas, some menstrual disorders, etc. Is pitta provoking if used in excess.

An easily available herb that packs a punch, thyme might be just the herb to add to my garden this year. 


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