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Wild thyme

Wild thymeCommon_Thyme_Derbyshire_Philip_Precey

By Dyane Silvester

You have probably trampled on wild thyme and not even noticed (unless you've become aware of its scent).

This unassuming little plant is widespread on dry grassy heaths, especially on lime or chalk, along with its very similar relative large thyme. They are both low perennials with woody stems and scented leaves and tufts of purple flowers but Wild Thyme has runners where large doesn't, and large thyme's flowers are always in elongated spikes where wild thyme has rounded heads. If you're really observant – and have a magnifying glass – you might also be able to differentiate their hairiness: large thyme is hairy on all four sides of its square stem and wild thyme usually on just two.

Wild thyme is also the main food of the larvae of the large blue butterfly, so look out for these too - and you're also very likely to find bees and various species of hoverfly feeding on the nectar.

The Romans used wild thyme as a remedy for melancholy (depression) as it was thought to “enliven the spirits” with its fragrance. They also favoured it for flavouring cheeses. It contains compounds called thymols which have strong antiseptic properties and are, even in this modern age, used in many disinfectants and mouthwashes, although in synthetic form, not harvested from wild thyme any more. In traditional medicine wild thyme's vapour was inhaled as a remedy for tuberculosis, and a Finnish journal reported its efficacy against whooping cough. Perhaps in the light of the antiseptic properties (said to be more effective than carbolic acid) there is some basis for these uses.

In Danish and German folklore, fairies live in patches of thyme; thyme oil was used as an ointment thought to make it easier to see them. In Europe of the Middle Ages it was a symbol of courage and Scottish Highlanders drank tea made from an infusion of thyme leaves to give themselves strength and courage... and to prevent nightmares!

So next time you're out on the grassy heathlands and not concentrating on where you're putting your feet, spare a minute to look down, allow the fragrance from beneath your boots to chase away your melancholy, and consider this tiny plant's place in our world.

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