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A genus of small evergreen aromatic plants, woody at least at the base. Leaves small, opposite, usually dotted with oil glands. Flowers in axillary whorls, which are sometimes crowded into terminal clusters. Calyx cylindric or bell-shaped, more or less two-lipped. Corolla two-lipped or almost symmetrical, the upper lip not hooded; tube straight. Stamens four, usually exserted.
Thymus is confined to the Old World. Most of the species that have been described belong to the very complex section Serpyllum, which ranges across Eurasia to the Russian Far East and Japan. It is largely this section, with its numerous local races, that accounts for the varying estimates of the number of species to be recognised in this genus, which ranges from thirty-five to four hundred. The section Thymus, the type of which is T. vulgaris, is also a large one, and extends into Central Asia. All but fifteen of the sixty-five species recognised in Flora Europaea belong to these two sections.
The most ornamental of the thymes belong to the section Pseudothymbra but these are intolerant of winter wet or even tender, and are better suited to the alpine house than to the rock garden. The distinctive features of this group are the long, slender corolla tube and the conspicuous, often coloured inflorescence-bracts. Those known to have been introduced or reintroduced in recent years are:
T. cilicicus Boiss. & Bal. – A.M. 1962 to a form introduced by Peter Davis from S.W. Anatolia c. 1958.
T. integer Griseb. – A native of Cyprus introduced by Peter Davis in 1941. A.M. 1947.
T. longiflorus Boiss. – A native of S.E. Spain introduced by Peter Davis and Vernon Heywood in 1947. A.M. 1951. They also introduced T. murcicus Porta, which is included in T. longiflorus in Flora Europaea.
T. membranaceus Boiss. – A close ally of T. longiflorus introduced from S.E. Spain by T. A. Lofthouse in the 1920s. Bot. Mag., n.s., t. 58. A.M. 1930.
For descriptions of these species see the excellent treatment of Thymus by Dr W. T. Stearn in the R.H.S. Dictionary of Gardening.
The species treated below are all very hardy and thrive in light, sandy, or calcareous soils. Propagation is by cuttings, but the mat-forming sorts can also be increased by division.