by Matt Gibson
Lemon thyme plants are so easy to grow—they practically do all the work themselves. The highly aromatic herb is a low-slung, woody perennial that performs well in both relatively dry and moderately sunny garden locations. Thyme leaves can be harvested and used in cooking, producing a flavor profile that holds its own against other strong ingredients and blends in perfectly as part of Italian cooking, such as when it’s paired with garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes.
Lemon thyme has a flavor profile that’s a natural choice to spice up Mediterranean cuisine, and the plant is also native to that region. Though lemon thyme looks just like regular thyme, you can tell the difference between the two if you crush up a few of its leaves and breathing in its powerful citrus scent. With over 350 species of thyme, there are plenty of different scents and flavors to choose from. We recommend the strong yet balanced flavor of the lemon thyme plant, which is accompanied by the strong citrusy bouquet from which it gets its name.
Thyme was once cultivated for its many medicinal applications, such as its use as a natural antiseptic and preservative. It was also used in recipes for preserving meats and to liven up early perfumes. Thyme is now cultivated primarily as an ornamental plant and is sometimes harvested for its culinary uses. Lemon thyme is a wonderful addition to the spice rack. Many chefs prefer lemon thyme to regular thyme for certain recipes. Not only do diners get the subtle but zesty essence of lemon as well as the light herbal flavor of thyme, but they also won’t detect any of the bitterness that one normally associates with the standard thyme.
The pink, white or lavender tubular flowers of the thyme plant are very popular among the bee community. Thyme’s small gray-green leaves stay evergreen, and most varieties of thyme can be harvested even in the winter time. Lemon thyme produces clusters of small lavender or light purple flowers. The flowers can also be used in the kitchen, adding a colorful decorative element to your favorite entrees as well as providing a subtle herbal and citrus flavor that’s similar to the taste of the leaves themselves.
Lemon thyme has recently been declared its own distinct species of the plant. For most of history, it was considered a hybrid herb. However, recent DNA analysis has shown that it is not a hybrid of standard garden thyme and broadleaf thyme but instead is its own separate species entirely. Thanks to horticultural experimentation, there are quite a few different cultivars of lemon thyme available to modern gardeners.
Lemon thyme has become popular in herb gardens for its gastronomical utility as well as for the plant’s pleasant aroma and pretty foliage. It’s grown in popularity due to its versatility, practicality, and easy care requirements. Lemon thyme is perfectly suited to join a variety of herbs in an outdoor herb garden. Your lemon thyme plants can also thrive in a rock garden—even with little to no soil. The plant is right at home in containers and is a natural choice as a ground cover or a border plant for garden beds and walking paths.
Varieties of Lemon Thyme
Creeping Golden Lemon Thyme: This variety produces shiny, variegated, greenish gold lemon-scented leaves. During the blooming season, it produces lavender flower spikes.
Lemon Supreme: During mid to late summer, this variety produces light mauve flowers. The lemon supreme thyme plant is more hardy than other varieties, and it produces a more pronounced lemon aroma and flavor than other cultivars.
Lime Thyme: You would think that lime thyme would get its own species, but it is simply a hybrid of the Mediterranean perennial that has a lime scent and flavor instead of a lemon scent and flavor. This mounding ground cover produces lavender-pink blooms and bright chartreuse green leaves.
Orange Thyme: This cultivar of lemon thyme grows especially low to the ground and has a more orange-forward citrus scent and flavor.
Silver-Edged Lemon Thyme: As its name would suggest, this variety of thyme produces green leaves with silver edges and has a mild aroma and flavor profile. In the summertime, it is adorned with pink flowers.
Golden Lemon Thyme: The golden variety of lemon thyme, as its name indicates, produces a variegated yellow-gold foliage but is bred to have a less pungent aroma and flavor than common lemon thyme plants.
Growing Conditions for Lemon Thyme
Thyme is very hardy and can adapt to a wide range of growing conditions if necessary. The same is true for lemon thyme. Lemon thyme will thrive in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 through 9 and will remain evergreen in zones 8 and 9. Different varieties have differing care instructions. Some send up flower stalks while others cascade, and even others form dense ground covering mats.
Some varieties form an almost flat-looking carpet, while others reach up to six to 10 inches in height. Thyme is actually picky about being handled too much. The more a gardener fusses with it, the worse it will perform. Provide your plant with full sun, and remember that lemon thyme can handle hot and dry conditions more than it can a cool, damp soil and root system.
Plant lemon thyme in the spring in full sunlight, with plants spaced about 12 inches apart. Make sure that your soil’s drainage is ample, and avoid overwatering. Your plants should grow about 12 to 15 inches high. Lemon thyme is deer resistant and quite tolerant of poor soil conditions and drought, so caring for your crop is pretty straightforward.
Lemon thyme is a gardener favorite because it has no serious issues with pests or diseases. Ants may visit, but they should not damage lemon thyme plants, and root rot is only an issue when there is standing water. Other than those small considerations, growing lemon thyme should be pretty much problem-free if you provide this herb with the correct growing conditions.
How to Plant Lemon Thyme
Though thyme plants are usually propagated by division or by cutting, thyme is occasionally still grown from seed. It is important not to mix varieties when you choose to grow from seed, however, as the different types of thyme can cross-pollinate and hybridize. If you are trying to cover a large area with thyme plants, space them out about six inches apart from one another so they will form a solid ground cover. Otherwise, give lemon thyme about 12 inches of space between each plant.
Care of Lemon Thyme
If grown in warmer climates, thyme tends to get a bit shrubby. Trimming is recommended in the early spring to prevent the plant from becoming too woody. Feel free to shape it further just after the flowering period, if you desire. If you want to leave a lemon thyme plant au naturale and allow it to take its own shape, the only care needed is a bit of deadheading when flowerheads are spent in order to encourage new growth.
Harvesting Lemon Thyme
Established lemon thyme plants can be harvested at any given time. However, the best time to harvest herbs is in the morning, just before the plant starts to flower. This is the time when the lemon thyme plant is most aromatic and flavorful for picking. Simply pull out a pair of clean scissors or gardening shears, then snip off a few stems to add to your favorite recipes. Crush the leaves to get lemon thyme oil, which can be rubbed on yourself in order to repel mosquitoes.
Though you can use a food dehydrator or the low-and-slow oven method to dry your thyme for extended use and storage, the herb is far better when it’s fresh. To cook with lemon thyme, chop up the leaves and add them to the dish near the end of preparation so that the herb keeps its strong flavor, aroma, and color. Too much heat in the pan or oven could zap lemon thyme and leave its leaves lacking in more ways than one. Culinarily, lemon thyme can be added to just about anything. It is commonly found in recipes for soups, stews, seafood, poultry, and vegetable dishes as well as in sauces, stuffing, and marinades. Fresh sprigs and flowers are also sometimes added to plates as a garnish.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Lemon Thyme
Ants have been known to build their homes in the soil of thyme beds, as it is always loosely packed and easy to maneuver in. If you’re growing lemon thyme in incredibly damp or humid conditions, mold and root rot can become a challenging issue. Take care to ensure that your thyme plants are never sitting in stagnant water and that the area where they’re planted has well-draining and loosely packed soil to handle the amount of irrigation it is given.
Want to learn more about growing lemon thyme?
This tutorial will teach you all you need to know about growing thyme in containers:
This how-to shows you a way to easily propagate your thyme plants using the dirt method:
Watch this film of a gardener who explains why you should consider adding lemon thyme to your herb garden this year:
Check out this video about how to properly harvest your thyme plants when the time is right:
Read more about lemon thyme with these helpful resources:
The Farmer’s Almanac covers Growing Thyme
Gardening Know How covers Growing Thyme Indoors
The Kitchn covers Everything You Need to Know About Growing Thyme
The Kitchn covers Inside the Spice Cabinet: Lemon Thyme
The Spruce covers How to Grow Thyme