Incorrect Names for Thymes?
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Sherry Corson
Posted on: March 08, 2010

I am a master gardener and herb enthusiast preparing to do a program on starting herbs from seed. I own books by Thomas DeBaggio where he states that English thyme does not make seed so I am now leery of starting thyme from seed as I am not sure what I’m going to get. After reading the statement below from a garden forum, I have to question if the information for ‘English thyme’ (page 50) and ‘wild thyme’ (page 51)in your 2010 catalog is correct. If I plant the English thyme seed from you what will I get? I generally bring your catalog,among others, with me to my talks as a seed resource. It appears that many catalogs are incorrect. Can you help me out here?

"Only French Thyme Thymus vulgaris and creeping thyme Thymus pulegioides (usually found erroneously as Thymus serpyllum) can be grown reliably from seed. True english thyme does not make seed since all plants are female and is probably a hybrid. English thyme seeds produce French thyme (also called german thyme and winter thyme). True english thyme(Thymus ‘Broadleaf English’) looks a lot like lemon thyme thymus x citriodorous and has much more elliptical flat leaves than French thyme which are "pointier" and if you look real close the edges kind of roll over (they are revolute). Francesco DeBaggio "

Richters always tries to keep up with the latest botanical nomenclature, but there are times (pun intended) when we are more apt to trust the common names because they are sometimes more meaningful. Where possible we follow the taxonomic conventions of the online Integrated Taxonomic Information System (http://www.itis.gov/index.html), but we are not totally beholden to those conventions.

It is not unheard of that a common name gets misapplied to a different plant at some point in history and then after years of use the name "becomes" the second plant. So while there may be an original "true" English thyme that is or was infertile, decades of association of the "English" name with a second fertile variety appears to have overtaken the original use. One cannot rightly say that the new use of the name is incorrect because by their very nature, common names reflect common use, quite unlike botanical names which are subject to internationally accepted rules.

I know that Francesco Debaggio, like his father Tom, has been guided by Dr Art Tucker who has been something of a godfather-taxonomist to the American herb industry. Dr Tucker has discovered that many common botanical names used in industry are erroneous. Herb businesses and industry authorities frequently defer to Dr Tucker’s views, and as result you get these sorts of existential crises where people get caught up in questions about true nomenclature while losing sight of the original plants and their qualities and usefulness as herbs.

Regardless of what botanical name you want to assign to what is commonly called "English" or "German Winter" thyme there *is* a distinct variety of thyme from seeds that has broader, darker leaves, a robust faster-growing habit, and strong thyme flavour and aroma. And there is another distinct variety of thyme grown from seeds that is slower growing, somewhat grayer in appearance, with narrower leaves than "English" and it is commonly called "French" or "Summer" thyme. Our point is simply this: let’s not dismiss these plants as somehow inferior just because their botanical nomenclature is confused. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that these plants are in fact the ones used to produce the world’s thyme for the spice and fresh herb markets.

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