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Thyme: One Plant – So Many Expressions

Everyone wants it to be July or August when they visit Provence. At this time the lavender harvest is in full swing, the yellowish soil has been baked to a dry crustiness like a loaf of wholemeal bread which has been left in the oven just a little too long, the cicadas scratch away from dawn to dusk in the shade of the pine forests, and the air is thick, sweet and heavy with the fragrance of any number of the medicinal plants that grow wild in this enchanting part of the world.

There are probably over 50 medicinal plants native to Provence (mostly the lamiaceae family which includes lavender, thyme, hyssop, rosemary, the mints, savory, etc). Malte suggests that it is the extremes of climateÑdryness followed by downpour, hot summers followed by winter blizzards, the baking sun which gives way to the cold mistral wind that blows down the Rhone valley from the northÑthat ‘stress’ the plants, ‘stretching’ them from one polarity to another and allowing them to produce their precious essential oils.

(Perhaps, in the same way, it is the times of intense stress in our own lives that stretch us, rudely waking us up from the comfort zone we had settled into, taking us to new levels of experience on this seemingly never-ending growth of knowledge and understanding? Just a thought…)

The ‘Sweet’ Thyme chemotypes

But if you visit High Provence in May or June a surprise of a different kind awaits you. After a cool wet Spring you will find that the clearings in the forest and the verges beside the road are awash with little flowers, and especially you will notice the tiny pink blooms of Thyme.

The soft, sweet Thyme geraniol / linalol-type clinging onto mossy rocks and flowering in High Provence during May

If you run your hands through these seemingly tender plants you will find the fragrance to be soft and gentle, a little bit alcoholic maybe. This is not the ‘fierce’ fiery phenolic thyme that grows lower down and in more southern climates, but a composite of the gentle ‘geraniol and linalol types’.

Thyme is one of those plants which expresses itself very differently depending on the climate, soil, altitude, daylight, growing conditions, etc. It’s important to be aware of these different ‘chemotypes’, as the oils that they produce are surprisingly different in their character and have different uses and safety considerations.

A few months ago Jennifer Peace-Rhind, author of a number of books on essential oils, made contact with us in connection with an article she was writing for The International Journal of Professional Holistic Aromatherapy about the different scent profiles of certain thyme oils, and we were happy to provide her with samples from the Oshadhi collection.

Below is her summary. For the sake of completeness I have added the main biochemical components of each oil obtained from gas chromatography testing.

Jennifer Peace-Rhind writes:

Thymus oils are steam distilled from the flowering herb, and although most ecotypes have the distinctive thyme herbal signature, there are many variations on this, reflecting their varying compositions. Thyme essential oil is very much a Ôtop noteÕ and has no real persistence or depth, fading to a nondescript, faint herbal dryout in all cases.

Thyme vulgaris Carvacrol (Carvacrol, Linalol, Para-cymene, Gamma-terpinene, Thymol) The thymol and carvacrol types have sharp, warm and penetrating herbal (typical thyme type) odours, fragrant, with woody, spicy, and tobacco-like notes, dependent on the relative proportions of these components.

Thyme vulgaris (mild) Linalol (Linalool, Terpinene-4-ol, Myrcene, gamma-Terpinene) The linalool chemotype is herbal (thyme), with a soft, sweet, woody notes.

Thyme vulgaris (sweet) Geraniol (Geranyl acetate, Geraniol, beta-Caryophyllene, Linalool) The geraniol CT is herbal (thyme) with a sweet quality and rosy notes.

Thyme vulgaris (mild) Thuyanol-4 (trans-Thuyanol-4, Terpinene-4-ol, Myrcen-8-ol, Myrcen-8-yl acetate, gamma-Terpinene) The thuyanol-4 type is mild, sweet and fresh, herbal with a woody-floral note.

Thyme vulgaris Cineol (1,8-Cineol, Camphor, Camphene, alpha- & beta-Pinene, Borneol, Linalool, alpha-Terpineol) The 1,8-cineole chemotype has a soft, sweet, mild herbal aroma with camphoraceous and pine-like notes.

Field Thyme T. serpyllum (Carvacrol, Linalool, Paracymene, gamma-Terpinene, Thymol) A pleasant, warm herbal thyme aroma, with the ÔtarÕ element very much in the background. This sample was characterised by carvacrol, l-linalool, para-cymene, -terpinene and thymol.

Thyme zygis Thymol (Thymol, Paracymene, gamma-Terpinene, alpha-Pinene, Carvacrol, beta-Myrcene, Linalool) The essential oil has a strong and penetrating, highly fragrant herbal aroma, with the typical thyme signature. Thymol, carvacrol, thymol/carvacrol and linalool chemotypes are available.

Conehead Thyme T. capitatus (Carvacrol, gamma-Terpinene, Paracymene, beta-Caryophyllene, Thymol) Warm, spicy herbal (thyme) with a phenolic, tar-like element.

Thyme saturoides Borneol T. saturoides (Borneol, alpha-Terpineol, Camphene, beta-Caryophyllene, Carvacrol, Linalool, Thymol) Penetrating, sharp, warm, sweet herbal, with woody notes and a faint phenolic, tobacco-like element (borneol chemotype).

Spanish Marjoram T. mastichina (1,8-Cineol, Linalool, alpha-Terpineol, alpha- & beta-Pinene) A commercially available sample from Spain had a penetrating, cineolic aroma, with soft woody, clean camphor and pine-like notes; it does not have the distinctive ÔthymeÕ olfactory signature. This sample was characterised by dominated by 1,8-cineol, l-linalool, -terpineol, and – and -pinene.

Thyme Baeticus T. baeticus (Terpinene-4-ol, alpha-Terpineol, gamma-Terpinene, Paracymene, Borneol) Mild, light, sweet and herbal (thyme), with a very faint citrus and tea tree-like nuance.

Lemon Thyme T. hyemalis (1,8-Cineol, Linalool, Camphor, Paracymene, Camphene, Limonene) A Lemon Thyme variant was evaluated, and presented a sharp, penetrating herbal fragrance, with lemon-like notes in the heart.

T. citriodorus – Fresh, bright and herbaceous, and with a lemon-like character.

Reproduced with permission of the editor of the International Journal of Professional Holistic Aromatherapy.