In Shakespeare's Garden: A Brief History of Thyme

In Shakespeare's Garden: A Brief History of Thyme

In Shakespeare’s time, thyme was a feature in many fairy tales. Take a tour of the Folger’s Elizabethan Garden with volunteer Docent Jennifer Newton. Learn more at

OBERON: I know a bank where the wild thyme
blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet muskroses, and with eglantine. There sleeps Titania sometime of the night… JENNIFER: Hello, and welcome to Shakespeare's Garden. I'm Jennifer Newton, one of the volunteer
docents here at the Folger Shakespeare Library. We're standing in the Folger's Elizabethan
Garden, our window into plants in Shakespeare's plays and their everyday uses in Elizabethan life. We're also just in *time* for a very special
herb… Thyme! Thyme was introduced to England by the Romans
during their 1st-century conquest of Britain. They brought the herb with them for cooking,
but in the centuries that followed, its appeal grew beyond the kitchen and into legend. By the 16th century, thyme was a staple of
English myth. See these tiny blossoms? According to Elizabethan folklore, these were
cradles for baby fairies. Now, did people in Shakespeare's time really
believe their herb gardens were magical nurseries? Most probably didn't. Still, Elizabethan society was so full of
fairy legends that when Oberon says, "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows," everyone
knew that thyme meant they were in fairyland. All herbs had many uses in Shakespeare's England,
and not all of them seem so… *behind the thymes.* Elizabethans also used their herbs for medicines,
which they often prepared by boiling the herbs in still rooms—small home distilleries. Herbalists recommended thyme for many maladies,
from nightmares to plague, but one sticks out: Cough. Today, we know the Elizabethans were on to
something. One time, I was taking a group of people from
a pharmaceutical company on a garden tour. I was going on about how the Elizabethans—those
quaint Elizabethans!—used oil of thyme as a cough suppressant. One of the chemists turned to me and said,
"Well, we still do!" It just looks a little different now. When Elizabethans distilled their thyme, they
were doing so to extract its essential oils. Oil of thyme contains the chemical we now
call thymol, which is an antitussive. It soothes the throat and reduces the urge
to cough. So, the next time you take one of these, you're
also taking some of this.

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  1. Fascinating how one word or reference in Shakespeare's play can signify so much. Thank you for taking me back to the historical significance of thyme. I hope you will produce more videos.

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