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Thymus polytrichus

Mint / Dead-Nettle Family [Labiatae / Lamiaceae]  

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11th June 2004, Greenside Mines, Glenridding. Photo: © RWD
A low prostrate mat-forming plant of many limestone hills or heathy places.

11th June 2004, Greenside Mines, Glenridding. Photo: © RWD
The overall impression is a pink/lilac and purple/red carpet, interspersed by small green leaves (top right).

9th June 2006, Greenside Mines, Glenridding. Photo: © RWD
The leaves are small, dark-green and oval in shape, and either glabrous or slightly hairy. There is a mat of rooting but non-flowering stems bearing oval leaves, and another mat of flowering stems.

1st July 2005, Hollow Gill Bridge, Illgill Head, Wasdale. Photo: © RWD
The outer flowers in a bunch open up first, leaving the inner ones showing as purple boxing gloves within a rim of dark purple-red sepal teeth.

7th Sept 2012, Green Scar, Marsett, Hawes. Photo: © RWD
Not often seen from the side like this unless the plant is pulled apart. There are two long sepal teeth, often bent back as seen in the un-opened flower-bud lower left, and three shorter sepal teeth. The sepal teeth often turn dark purple-red. Any hairs on the stem usually occur on only two opposite sides of the square stem.

7th Sept 2012, Green Scar, Marsett, Hawes. Photo: © RWD
Normally counted as just two petals, but the lower lip is by far the largest and is deeply lobed into what then appear to be three petals. The other petal is much shorter and with a slight nick as to appear as two petals. There are four stamens with white-tipped purple anthers (although often only a single and longer white stigma is visible). [Perhaps there are separate male and female flowers??]. The three shorter sepal teeth can be seen underneath the shorter petal.

(Aceria thomasi)

 Galls and Rusts Menu

22nd June 2009, Trowbridge, Silverdale, Lancs. Photo: © RWD
Wild Thyme is commonly galled in summer by the gall mite Aceria thomasi, which causes the upper leaves to ball up into a hairy whitish tight-knit ball of leaves about a centimetre across.

22nd June 2009, Trowbridge, Silverdale, Lancs. Photo: © RWD
Tinges of purple show through the long white hairs amongst which the mites live.

Some similarities to : Selfheal (when flower heads viewed hastily from above) but wild thyme has flowers that are much more mauve than the dark-blue of Selfheal.

Easily mistaken for : Breckland Thyme (Thymus serpyllum) but that is quite rare and grows only in Breckland, in Norfolk and very few other places.

Not to be confused semantically with Thyme Broomrape, Thyme-Leaved Speedwell, Thyme-Leaved Sandwort, Basil Thyme, or Thyme-Moss [plants of similar names belonging to differing genera or families]

Could be mistaken for : Garden Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a cultivar that grows wild in a few widely scattered places and is larger than Wild Thyme, with larger and grey-green leaves and paler flowers. Large Thyme (Thymus pulegioides) is much taller at up to 25cm and more strongly aromatic than Wild Thyme; has hairs on the two sharper-angled sides of the squarish stems and has flowers in longer heads..

The lilac/pink flowers, in particular the prominent large lip bearing three lobes, has the same general shape (and colour) as that of the flowers of Pyramidal Orchid, but other than that, there can be no mistaking the two. Indeed, it is the three parallel-sided lobes set at about 60° to each other that is one of the identifying features of Wild Thyme.

Wild Thyme is an under-shrub with mats of both non-flowering but rooting stems bearing leaves, and short flowering stems bearing over a dozen flowers each. The outer flowers of each flowering stem open up first, initially leaving a disc of un-opened flower buds in the middle. Un-opened flowers show a deeper purple flower within a beetroot coloured ring of sepal teeth. They will all eventually open.

The plant likes to grow in lowish mountain places especially on lime or chalk, but also grows in dry grassy places and dry heaths and dunes.

There seems to be great confusion over its scientific name, some calling it Thymus praecox, others calling it Thymus serphyllum (the scientific name for Breckland Thyme!, and yet others declaring it to variously be Thymus polytrichus ssp. britannicus, Thymus praecox ssp. brittanicus and Thymus polytrichus ssp. ligusticus. Even Clive Stace is confused. Despite this profusion of scientific names, there are no hybrids of Wild Thyme.

Large Blue


Wild Thyme is a very low plant apt to form carpets partly covering limestone grassland in patches. When crushed between the fingers has an unmistakable smell of Garden Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) due to the presence of thymol, a monoterpene and also to carvacrol, an isomer of thymol. Both are also present in Oregano and in Wild Bergamot, which are also members of the mint family. Both inhibit the growth of bacteria and mould and kill fungal spores. Thymol has been used to control varroa mite in bee colonies.

Wild Thyme can be used instead of garden thyme when cooking.


Chemotypy is exhibited by several plants, more and more are being found all the time as several specimens of the same plants from around the World (or around the UK) are chemically analysed. Even the toxins any single species produces can vary from country to country, soil-type to soil-type.

With plant chemotypes, the only way the plants differ from each other is by the nature of the secondary metabolites that they produce. It could be the same secondary metabolites but in differing proportions. Or it could be an entirely differing set of secondary metabolites. The plants can accomplish this by slight alterations to their genes which control the production of these toxins or secondary metabolites. This need not involve differing genes, they can accomplish this feat by gene methylation, an epigenetic process whereby the genes remain intact; it is just the expression of those methylated sections which are inhibited by the creatively attached methyl groups. Plants which exhibit chemotypy are not sub-species, but rather they are plants with the same binomial name, which have learned, in one place, to produce one set of secondary metabolites and in another place or set of circumstances to produce a differing set of secondary metabolites which are more capable of defending the plant from the threats found in that particular region. They don't even qualify botanically as a differing variety.

Even under normal circumstances the threats are multitudinous and multidimensional; it could be heat-stress, water-stress, sun-stress (either too much or too little), salt-stress, stress due to contaminating heavy-metals in the soil, physical attack by rabbits, insects, fungi, bacterial, phytoplasmas, disease, or by competition from nearby plants; any form of onslaught. When under stress, the plants produce a greater range and a greater quantity of toxic secondary metabolites to try to defend against any attack. The more stress the plant is under, the more vicious are the plants defences. But it costs the plant energy to produce these toxic defence chemicals, so it only produces more when under stress. In general, plants produce more toxins early in the growing season when they are most vulnerable and have not yet produced seed by which to proliferate themselves. When they have produced seed, many plants put extra toxins in the seeds to help protect them from other predators and diseases. This is called Phenotypic Plasticity. It is not chemotypy.

But differing areas in which the same plants find they are growing may well present differing threats with which to deal. Some plants are able to modulate the relative amounts of each toxin they produce in defence. Or even to produce a completely differing sub-set of defence chemicals. These plants, although nominally the same, may have slightly differing genes and/or have slightly modified the genes that they use to synthesize secondary metabolites by a methylation process which either inactivates those regions of the genes or modulates their effectiveness. Plants which do this exhibit chemotypy; they synthesize differing ratios of the same toxins or produce entirely different secondary metabolites, or even both at the same time. [Your Author is unsure whether the current definition of chemotypy (which has varied over time) includes secondary metabolite changes induced by epigenetic changes to the genome induced by environmental changes - by methyl groups inactivating certain areas of the DNA? The latest definition of chemotypy may exclude epigenetic changes)

Many, but by no means all, plants which exhibit chemotypy are those that are either salt-tolerant or Metallophytes (heavy-metal tolerant - although it has been established that there are no plants which actually grow better in soil contaminated by heavy metals; rather that they tolerate the heavy metals - having special processes within which can either excrete the dangerous heavy metals or secrete them out of harms way into specialised compartments. They rather tolerate the heavy metals where most other species cannot cope and therefore cannot grow there - but they themselves are only growing in heavy-metal contaminated ground because there is no competition from other plants which cannot grow there).

However, it turns out that if you transfer one plant chemotype into another area, it usually fares less well. Each chemotype has adapted itself to the environmental conditions in that area in which it is presently thriving. Many such chemotypes grow best in differing countries. Chemotypes cannot only depend upon where they are growing, but also at what time of year that you examine the secondary metabolites produced. [Your Author is still unsure if this is true for the modern definition of chemotypy]

When your Author finds several different lists of compounds in the essential oil for any one species, it is quite remarkable how much they can differ. This must be chemotypy in action.

Plants exhibiting chemotypy do not usually grow very well in areas other than their native territory. Perhaps this is one way sub-species can develop, leading on perhaps eventually to a differing species altogether. This process is called speciation, and is assumed to occur extremely slowly; hardly anyone has ever seen it in action, at least not in the case of plants. But chemotypy may well be one route for plants to eventually become differing species.

Wild Thyme is claimed by some to have nine such Chemotypes, each one based upon a pre-cursor secondary metabolite.

Each of these 9 compounds represents the secondary metabolite upon which the chemistry of each 9 differing chemotypes is based. For instance those chemotypes with Eucalyptol (aka 1,8-Cineol) produce a differing set of secondary metabolites to the chemotype based upon Sabinene Hydrate (aka trans-4-Thujanol).

Of all the monoterpenoids shown, Sabinene Hydrate is by far the most toxic.

The nomenclature adopted for Chemotypes is to use the name of the compound associated with a chemotype after the abbreviation 'ct.'. Thus the Wild Thyme chemotype attributed to Geraniol would be named Thymus vulgaris ct. geraniol (sweet thyme) (or Thymus vulgaris CT geraniol (sweet thyme)), although neither designation have any taxonomic standing. The name in brackets (which may be omitted) is the common name under which that chemotype is often known. The 'CT' can also appear after the name of the secondary metabolite.

[Note: Your Author has drawn each set in such a juxtapositional arrangement whereby the resemblance is immediately apparent. But on the internet the reader will find drawings for Sabinene Hydrate (aka trans-4-Thujanol) and Eucalyptol (aka 1,8-Cineole) where the components are drawn in a differing spatial arrangement; but if the reader studies any alternative arrangement closely he will discover that they are topologically equivalent: all the lines go to all the correct corners].

Your Author has since found a book which lists two extra chemotypes of Wild Thyme: the para-Cymene and the Phenol chemotypes.

Chemotypes are named after the most abundant secondary metabolite that they produce. But each chemotype can produce secondary products which are highly variable both in quantity and in identity. Two specimens having the same chemotype can have a mix of totally differing compounds; only the main secondary metabolite is the same.

  • Thymol CT (Red Thyme) is strongly antiseptic and attacks human skin, for when harvested in Autumn, the essential oil consists of 60 to 70% Thymol. But if harvested in the spring it is a differing chemotype: para-Cymene CT.
  • Carvacrol CT is strongly antiseptic and similar to Oregano. Harvested in spring the essential oil has but 30% Carvacrol, but harvested in Autumn 60-80% Carvacrol
  • Linalool CT Grown in low altitudes it is soothing, but grown at high altitudes it is anti-fungal, anti-parasitic and uterotonic.
  • Thujanol CT 50% trans-4-Thujanol (aka Sabinene Hydrate) irrespective of season and found only in the wild, for when cultivated does not exhibit this Chemotype.
  • α-Terpineol CT has a slightly peppery taste and obtained by harvesting early in spring.
  • Geraniol CT harvested in autumn has a lemony smell and is grown at high altitudes. Exhibits cardiotonic and anti-viral properties.
  • Eucalyptol CT (aka 1,8-Cineole CT) 80-90% Eucalyptol. It exhibits insect repellency with analgesic, decongestive and diuretic properties.
  • para-Cymene CT Analgesic when applied to the skin, useful for arthritis and rheumatism. Harvest in spring for para-Cyment CT; harvested in Autumn it becomes the Thymol CT.
  • Phenol CT This chemotypy is a result of high latitude growing (the further north the higher the Phenolic compounds). Grown in Finland it is 90% phenol.

Other plants exhibiting chemotypy are:
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) [1,8-cineole,Verbenon]
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) [Fenchol, Eugenol, Linalool, Methyl Chavicol]
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) [Citral, Citronellal]
Sage (Salvia officinalis) [Thujone, 1,8-Cineole]
Tarragon (Artemisia draculuncus) [Estragole, Sabinene]
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) [Valeranone, Valeranal, CryptoFuranol]

The Mint Family (Lamiaceae) is the family which produces the most plants exhibiting chemotypy. Amongst them Clary Sage (Salvia sclaria), Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Marjoram (Origanum majorana), Patchouly (Pogostemon cablin), Pennyroyal (Mentha pulgenium), Peppermint (Mentha piperita), Spear Mint (Mentha spicata), Spike Lavender (Lavendula latifolia) as well as Basil, Wild Thyme, Sage, Lemon Balm and Rosemary already mentioned above.

But another source says that much of what has been written in books and on the internet on chemotypy is just plain wrong. It says that, although chemotypes are not a sub-species or in any other taxonomic category, a chemotype is where a plant produces a distinctly differing set of secondary metabolites which can be grouped on a 2-dimensional plot such that differing chemotypes occupy differing areas on that 2-axis plot (it doesn't say what the 2 axes represent though! - and why not a 3-axes graph or multidimensional plot). But also, and this is the crucial difference to some of the other tables of 'chemotypes' shown above, these different chemotypes must remain stable in changing environments and they must also be heritable (which may rule out environmental epigenetic changes to the genome by methylation - but some epigenetic changes are heritable [but perhaps not permanently so]).

That is, the chemotypes must reflect differences in their genes, rather than phenotypic plasticity!

That last requirement puts some of the members in the above nine-membered table at distinct odds with this definition. In particular with the para-Cymene CT and the Thymol CT - in true chemotypy your Author thinks that it is forbidden to change from para-Cymol CT to Thymol CT as a result of looking at it later in the season! Your Author thinks that the Thujanol CT also seems to break this stringent definition of chemotypy: for in a cultivated setting it does not exhibit Thujanol CT. This seeming breaking of the rules in at least three places puts the whole above Wild Thyme table into question.

So, your Author leaves it to the reader to disentangle the true definition of chemotypy. But your Author would point out that since chemotypy (of one sort or another) was discovered, DNA profiling was instigated and has become much more extensive and accurate, so it is little wonder that the definition of chemotypy has wandered around and evolved over that time. Perhaps it is just as well that chemotypy is not (yet) a part of taxonomy...


Here is Wikipedias take on :  /Phenotype

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Thymus polytrichus

Mint / Dead-Nettle Family [Labiatae / Lamiaceae]  

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