Thymbra capitata

Photo of purple flower

General Description / Cultural Significance
The island country of Malta lies in the center of the Mediterranean Sea. Beyond the low-lying, rocky coasts, the remains of once flourishing Holm Oak woodlands stand, rendered sparse and nearly destroyed by timber harvesting overtime. Malta’s vast steppe is home to abundantly growing thistle, and upon its limestone reliefs, Malta’s most common habitat, the garrigue, is found. This arid, windy environment of hardy rocks and low-lying shrubs produces many different types of aromatic plants whose essential oils prevent them from being eaten by grazing livestock. Even in the face of drought, the essential oils contained in these aromatic plants evaporate before their water content does, keeping the plants hydrated and healthy for longer during times of stress. 

One such plant which flourishes in this environment is the eye catching and fragrant Thyme, Thymbra capitata. The flowers of Malta’s indigenous, wild-growing Thyme bloom from May to July, brightening the brown landscape of dying or dormant flora with their vibrant violet flowers. Although Maltese chefs and average people alike know exactly where to find Thyme in the garrigue and atop valleys, they are encouraged to seek out their culinary Wild Thyme from markets so as to prevent overharvesting. Thyme is added for flavoring to meats, marinades, and stews where even a small amount of the herb produces a potent, herbaceous, aromatic signature. The Maltese use every bit of the plant, often saving the stems of Thyme to decorate baby cribs. 

Thyme’s medicinal uses are boundless. Traditional Maltese medicine instructs those with a sore throat to gargle an infusion of dried Thyme and honey, and to drink up the pleasant and healing mixture at the end. Because it is high in antioxidants and has antibacterial activity, balms and ointments which include Thyme are known to treat bacterial skin infections, athlete’s foot, and ringworm. During times of war and conflict, of which Malta has experienced extensively, people turned to Maltese herbalists for a treatment of shock and panic after surviving traumatic bombings and witnessing death. What these healers created was a boiled reduction of aromatic plants known as The Jaundice Medicine, Id-Duwa tas-Suffejra, which includes Thymbra capitata. Many Maltese recall their mothers brewing this mixture throughout their childhoods, infusing the fragrance of Thyme with the collective Maltese memory of war, survival, and healing.

Malta’s fusion of beekeeping and herbalism traditions have produced a world-famous Wild Thyme Honey, known as Ghasel Tas-Saghtar, which is made traditionally from Thyme harvested directly from the scrublands of Malta. An integral practice since the 12th century, the beekeeping community of Malta is dwindling today under the pressures of land restriction and pollinator population shifts. Combined with the recent environmental and developmental threats reducing Thyme populations, it is now difficult for the Maltese to produce consistent yields of this iconic honey. Wild Thyme Honey is one of many culinary and medicinal Maltese concoctions in which Thyme plays a key role. The plant’s decline is a heartbreaking example of how the disappearance of one aromatic plant represents both an economic and cultural loss for Malta, and also serves as an indicator for an ecosystem at large suffering at the hands of increasing climate change. 

Climate Change / Conservation Status

Like much of the world, Malta has not been immune to the growing threats of climate change. Changing temperatures have made hot summers harder to endure, and changed the scheduling patterns of tourists which the Maltese must now adapt to. This makes the country financially vulnerable as Malta is highly dependent on tourism and foreign trade due to its historically exploited natural resources. Malta’s roads and port infrastructure are unprepared for the sea levels rise predicted to continue through the 21st century. 

Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, Thyme was so overexploited for culinary and decorative use that it was made illegal to harvest in Malta in 1932. With the help of this legislation, the original Thymbra capitata population has recuperated slowly, though Malta’s changing weather has introduced new stresses on the plant and its ecosystem. The country’s warm summers have begun to extend into fall causing gross aberrations in the blooming cycle of Thymbra capitata, which is now flowering as early as November. This means the plant’s energy reserves are used to produce blooms far earlier than normal. Botanists insist that, with those sources of energy used up so early, Thyme is far less likely to survive the year ahead. This also affects the bees of Malta, who depend on Thyme’s nectar to produce honey, and are then thrown off of their annual pollination cycles. More unnatural phenomena are popping up in the once natural order of Malta’s landscapes. For instance, birds such as the Blue Rock Thrush, Malta’s national bird, is breeding out of season. This seemingly small change to Thyme’s annual flowering proves how quickly the delicate balance of an environment is being disrupted by climate change. If Thyme disappears, with it will go many other indigenous species of flora, insects, and birds, to say nothing of the aromatic and cultural character of Malta so integrally formed around centuries of close contact with Thyme. 

Alternate Names
Is-saghtar (Maltese)
Headed Savory
Conhead Thyme

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