Wild Thyme

Wild ThymeWild Thyme is one of the plants in full bloom on the Lizard in July.
Photo: Amanda Scott

Scientific name: Thymus polytrichus

What to look for:

  • Flowers: Pale purple flower-heads, about 5 mm across.
  • Leaves: Opposite pairs, 4 to 8 mm long
  • Height: Low-growing, can grow to some length via underground runners.
  • Where: Widespread on calcareous soils, in heath, short grassland, rocks and sand dunes
  • When: Wild thyme flowers between May and August
  • Habit: Low-growing, creeping, often forming mats
  • Similar to: Two other Thyme species are native to Britain – Breckland Thyme and Large Thyme – but neither of these grow in Cornwall

Wild ThymeI know a bank where the wild thyme blows…Oberon’s words from his soliloquy in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act 2, Scene 1) lend a wistful and warm air to the delicate but profuse flowers of Wild Thyme. This is maybe not undeserved for a plant that comes into its own in mid-summer, when its purple-pink flowers open close to the ground above its creeping stems and mats of leaves. Look out for it growing on heaths, grasslands, rocks and along the clifftops.

A member of the Dead-nettle family (Lamiaceae), like all of that family it has square stems: Wild Thyme has very slender stems, but you can see the square shape clearly under a hand lens, or feel it by rolling the stem between your fingers. You can also catch a faint thyme scent, although it is not as strong as the species that we use in cooking (Thymus vulgaris – a Mediterranean import).

Wild Thyme is the food plant of the Large Blue butterfly (Maculinea arion), and a number of moth species, including the Thyme Pug (Eupithecia distinctaria).

Did you know…?

…Thymol, the oil that gives Thyme species their scent, is a good antiseptic.

…In folklore, Wild Thyme is believed to one of the flowers most favoured by fairies.

More information and references:

Crafer, T., 2005. Foodplant List for the Caterpillars of Britain’s Butterflies and Larger Moths. Atropos Publishing, Holmfirth, UK.

Mabey, R., 1997. Flora Britannica. Chatto & Windus, London.

Rose, F. and O’Reilly, C., 2006. The Wild Flower Key, 2nd edition. Frederick Warne, London.

Stace, C., 2010. New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Published: July 2014
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Amanda Scott