wild thyme defined in 1913 yearwild thyme - Wild thyme (Thymus serpyllum);
wild thyme - "And because the breath of flowers is far sweeter in the air (where it comes and goes, like the warbling of music) than in the hand, therefore nothing is more fit for that delight than to know what be the flowers and plants that do best perfume the air," and then Lord Bacon, planning his "princely garden," gives an annotated list of fragrant flowers, adding, "but those which perfume the air most delightfully, not passed by as the rest, but being trodden upon and crushed, are three; that is burnet, wild thyme, and watermints; therefore, you are to set whole alleys of them, to have pleasure when you walk or tread." His garden was not to appeal to the eye alone!
Wild Thyme has always been taken as the emblem of fragrance and sweetness. Its very name Thyme (in Greek form) was first given it by the Greeks as a derivative from a word which meant "to fumigate," either because they used it as their incense, or because it was taken as a type of all such sweet-smelling herbs. Strangely enough this little plant, so deeply rooted in the affections and thoughts of Englishmen, has never been known by any common native name, though occasionally "Thyme" is qualified in some way, such as Running Thyme, Wild Thyme, or Mother of Thyme. (An odd synonym or two, such as "Brother Wort," "Hill Wort," or "Pella Mountain," are purely local terms.) Also, though the plant is so abundant and familiar in Great Britain to-day, we never find it mentioned in old English vocabularies; apparently The first reference to it is in a "Pictorial Vocabulary" of 1440. A question has therefore been raised as to whether it is a true native, but, anyway, by Spenser's and Shakespeare's day it was certainly fully at home. The former speaks of the "bees-alluring time," while everyone is familiar with the latter's description of the bower of the Queen of the Fairies, the "bank where the Wild Thyme blows."
Perhaps the reason why Thyme became peculiarly the emblem of sweetness is that Mount Hymettus, near Athens, was covered with Wild Thyme, and there the bees buzzed unceasingly, and there they gathered honey of special flavour and sweetness, so in the minds and writings of the ancients sweetness and Thyme were inextricably united. "Thyme for the time it lasteth, yieldeth most and best honni, and therefore in old time was accounted chief," said an old English writer.
Wild Thyme is really a tiny shrub - indeed, one of the smallest - with little hard, many-branched twigs that look smooth but are, all the same, covered with minute hairs all pointing down from the flowers, as any creeping insect may discover. There are hairs, too, few but long, on the base of the leaves and on the sepals of the flowers. Perhaps they are to keep guard over the honey-filled flowers, but more probably they are a coat which shields the plant somewhat from the sun's heat, and helps it to retain its moisture, for, as Alphonse Karr reminds us, "If there is an arid, stony, dry soil burnt up by the sun, it is there thyme spreads its charming green beds, perfumed, close, thick, elastic."
The little plain, oval leaves lie along the stem in pairs, but they very readily fall from the stalks. "The floures grow about the toppe of the stalkes like to crownes or garlands," wrote Lyte in Queen Elizabeth's day, and these clusters of perhaps forty or fifty flowers are dark in colour, relieved by touches of a paler lilac. The darkness is due to the massed calyces of the various flowers, for these are a purplish green. Each is two-lipped, the upper projecting lip having three teeth, the lower lip two sharp teeth.
White hairs fringe it, particularly on the outer sides of the lower lip. Out of the calyx a lilac, two-lipped, tubular corolla projects, its white tube lying easily within the calyx like a long neck in a loose collar. This corolla reverses the form of the calyx, for the upper lip with two lobes is the shorter, while the lower lip with three is large and spreading. But after we have got so far in our investigation differences in the flowers meet us both on the same plant and in flowers on different plants. For instance, in the youngest and freshest flowers on a certain plant four stamens are projecting far beyond the petals, the halves of the anthers being very distinct, for they are set, a little apart, on the ends of their filaments. Each half is slitting down its length and pollen is escaping. In a somewhat older flower there are only the remains of four withered stamens to be seen, but, instead, there is a forked column thrust straight out like the traditional forked tongue of a dragon. It is trying to catch some of the pollen from those younger and fresher flowers that is being carried about by bees. Therefore, each of the flowers on this particular plant is, to all intents and purposes, male at the beginning of its life, and female in the latter part.
But if we turn to other plants whose flowers are perhaps a trifle lighter in colour and a little smaller, we shall look in vain for the first male stage, or for any remnants of withering stamens, for in them there is only a projecting, dragon-tongued stigma, with the long style running back to the four nutlets at the base. These are exclusively female flowers. Some botanists say they have also found male flowers i.e. flowers which have stamens only - particularly in Italy - but it is very doubtful if there are any such in England. Here only the hermaphrodite flowers (i.e. the flowers with both sets of organs) and the female flowers are known, and the two are about equally distributed. With this provision for promoting cross-fertilisation the plant is content. It is asserted that it has absolutely no power of self-fertilisation.
After the lilac corollas fall off certain hairs inside the calyx stretch out and form a shining, rayed disk covering over the four nutlets that lie at the base. This disk makes a gleaming white spot noticeable within every calyx in which the maturing of the seeds is progressing. It serves, perhaps, to hide them from small animals which might otherwise make their dinner off them.
The fragrance of the leaves of the Thyme is due to an essential oil that permeates their tissues: a variety of the same oil in a stronger form gives our Garden Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) its flavouring value for such culinary purposes as "stuffing" for poultry. This species of Thyme is a native of Southern Europe where, indeed, especially in the Mediterranean district, the Thymes grow in full force. The plant serves as a badge of extreme Republicanism in the South of France.
The herbalists of old found many uses for our little Wild Thyme. "Running Thyme mengled with Vinegar and oyle of Roses and applied to the forehead swageth headache and is very good against raving and frenzie." Also, "the perfume of the same driveth away all venemous beasts," and so forth. Thyme, too, is specially associated with death; it is one of the fragrant plants that are favoured for planting on graves - in Wales particularly none but sweet-scented plants are tolerated for this purpose. The Oddfellows carry sprigs of Thyme at funerals and throw them into the grave of their dead brother. Superstition asserts that to carry a sprig of Wild Thyme into a house brings the direst ill-luck to the family; should death or serious illness follow in the immediate future, the blame is all cast on the unfortunate bearer of the twig. An old tradition says that Thyme was one of the herbs that formed the fragrant bed of the Virgin Mary. The Thyme, too, is one of the fairies' flowers, and tufts of Thyme are one of their favourite playing grounds. Anyone who doubts this statement must stand on Midsummer night under an elder bush, near where Wild Thyme is growing and watch for the fairies himself!
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