At a barbecue recently, one of those gloriously traditional Saturday-evening affairs where a dozen or so people sit around an outdoor table and drink beer and wine and eat bread and dip before – when someone can be bothered – the meat is eventually cooked, I was reintroduced to thyme. Yes, thyme, the herb, not the ‘indefinite continued existence of the universe in the past, present and future’ as the Oxford Dictionary has it. The host, a kind and gentle soul, did the honours; we’d arrived early so she showed us around her herb patch before other guests turned up. The thyme in the centrally located terracotta pot immediately took my interest, because as a little boy and then as a not-so-little teenager it was my favourite plant in the whole wide world.
Back when I knew nothing about anything (though I still don’t, it has to be said) I enjoyed gardening very much. I had my own plot at the rear of our North Shore home in Sydney. The yard was terraced there and I was allowed the lower, partly hidden level, which had been a cricket pitch before my brothers moved out. More a rock garden, I filled it with plants bought on sale from the local nursery or ‘borrowed’ from my mother’s beds or, more often, stolen from the bush over the road, which isn’t good, I know, but it’s the truth. Thyme, however, was the beloved plant, because it’s one that’s impossible for a dreamy teenaged boy to kill.
I shared all this with the barbecue host, and then declared that I’d be sure to visit a nursery and buy myself a piece of thyme. Which I did the next morning. At home I pinched the leaves and put my thumb and forefinger to my nose – what a delicious, pungent smell and how, yes, it transported me back to that rock garden I had in Sydney. So I potted up my new plant and put it pride of place on my own outdoor table. It was like I’d reunited with an old friend, or had discovered a part of me that had been submerged by years of being someone I’m not.
Yesterday I did some research on Thymus vulgaris, the second part of the name not at all appropriate for such a cheery plant. The ancient Egyptians used it for embalming, the Greeks liked bathing in it because it was thought to be a source of courage (I love that); in the European Middle Ages it was placed beneath pillows to ward off nightmares, which I’ll be sure to remember. I learnt that thyme’s central element, thymol, is a key ingredient in toothpaste and mouthwash, that it can cure tinnea and ringworm, that it’s used to prevent mould in bee colonies (another image I adore), and, just to show that absolutely everything has a dark side, it is one of the 599 additives to cigarettes as it improves flavour and relaxes the trachea.
I’ve since dug out an old photograph of my little lower-level rock garden and just now Blue-tacked it on the wall in my writing room. It’s so easy to imagine being that skinny, pimply young kid lost in a world of plants and soil.
It was – is – such a good world to be lost in.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 20 February 2010)