A BRIEF HISTORY of THYME and OTHER HERBS

Every good cook will know thyme's value in the kitchen as an essential ingredient of bouquet garni and as a tasty herb to enliven meat and poultry dishes. Thyme also makes an excellent garnish for hot vegetables such as carrots, swede and potatoes and a delicious addition to soups, stews and sauces.

A hot bowl of tomato soup will warm you on a cold winter's day from your top to your toes when you add a little thyme. It owes its pungent flavour to a volatile blend of oils which stimulate the circulation and provide warmth and energy to those feeling cold and lethargic.

It is said by some that thyme's name comes from the Greek thumos, meaning `to burn or fumigate', as the ancient Greeks used to burn thyme on the altars of their temples when they made sacrifices to their gods, and would make incense from thyme to keep away insects and contagion.

Others say that the name comes from thumus meaning courage, as thyme has a reputation for increasing strength and vigour. In fact, to ancient Greek warriors, and centuries later to medieval knights, thyme was a symbol of bravery and action. Medieval ladies would embroider a bee hovering over a sprig of thyme to present to their men as they made off for battle, to imbue them with strength and courage.

Made into a soup, thyme was believed to cure shyness. Certainly a hot cup of thyme tea makes a good exhilarating tonic for the whole system and through its beneficial effect on the nervous system, it is excellent for physical and mental exhaustion, tension, anxiety and depression when taken regularly.

It is interesting that thyme's reputation historically as an energy tonic and an aid to longevity is backed up by recent discoveries about its pharmacological constituents. The volatile oils in thyme have been found to have a beneficial effect on polyunsaturated fatty acids, keeping the body's cells healthy and helping to slow the ageing process. These fatty acids are vital for building cell walls and for the structure of the brain, the nervous system and blood vessels. Thyme oil has an antioxidant effect. It protects the polyunsaturated fatty acids from damage caused by oxygen and the release of free radicals -- the molecules that damage cells and tissues, leaving behind destructive waste products in the process. This in turn helps to protect against degenerative problems such as arthritis, heart and arterial disease, senile dementia and cancer.

The strong, pungent taste of thyme is familiar to many, not only as flavour in a variety of culinary delights but also as a vital component in antiseptic throat pastilles, cough remedies, mouthwashes, toothpastes, creams and lotions found in any high street chemist.

The main constituent of thyme's volatile oil, thymol, is very popular in the pharmaceutical trade for its powerful antiseptic effect. This can be put to good use at home when we use thyme as a tea or a tincture to treat a whole range of infections, including sore throats, colds and flu, coughs and chest infections, gastro-enteritis and cystitis.

Thyme has the ability to enhance our immunity to infection and is salutary for the chest. It makes an excellent remedy for coughs, for adults and children alike. It has a relaxing effect on the bronchial tubes, which helps to release the tension and spasms that occur in asthma and whooping cough.

At the same time it acts as an expectorant, increasing the production of phlegm and moving it out of the chest. Thyme is excellent for dry hacking coughs, the kind that keep children (and their parents) awake at night.

Hot thyme tea is also good for bringing down fevers, as it sends heat to the surface of the body and encourages perspiration. Children may prefer the tea sweetened with honey.

The relaxant action of thyme can help release wind and tension in the stomach and bowel and can be used with good effect to treat people with irritable bowel syndrome excellent for treating diarrhoea, bowel infections, `holiday tummy' and to re-establish a normal bacterial population in the gut -- a great help to those taking antibiotics or suffering from systemic candidiasis.

A teaspoon of thyme tincture taken half an hour before breakfast has been used traditionally with castor oil for worms. In France, thyme is valued particularly as a cleansing liver tonic, stimulating the digestive system and the function of the liver.

It is used to treat indigestion, poor appetite, liver and gallbladder complaints, skin problems and lethargy. Actually, thyme has a generally cleansing effect throughout the system, aiding normal elimination of toxins via the lungs, the bowels, the skin and the waterworks.

Taken as a lukewarm or cool tea it can relieve cystitis and an irritable bladder, particularly if combined with soothing herbs like marshmallow and couch grass. By helping to clear excess uric acid from the system, thyme can be taken to relieve arthritis and gout.

There are many different varieties of thyme. These fall into two groups, those that grow in clumps -- of which Thymus vulgaris is the most common -- and those that grow in pretty aromatic mats that creep over the ground, of which the best known is Thymus serpyllum or wild thyme.

Thyme can be put to good use externally as well. The oil, mixed into warming liniments and lotions, is wonderful for rubbing into aching joints and muscles. Thyme tincture mixed with a little water makes a good antiseptic lotion for cuts and grazes and an excellent gargle and mouthwash for sore throats and mouth ulcers.

As an anti-fungal, thyme is a great remedy for thrush and athletes foot. A few drops of thyme oil in hot water makes a stimulating inhalation for chasing away colds and catarrh, and a great antidote to the winter blues. Whenever I smell thyme I am immediately transported to the mountains of Greece where my family and I have spent happy hours picking wild thyme and admiring the sunlight sparking on the Adriatic.

Market Link Publishing.

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By Anne McIntyre

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