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Lemon Thyme: Tiny Leaves With A Citrusy Kick

Lemon thyme is a must for any herb garden.  This versatile, zesty herb has all the savory notes of common thyme with an added sweet citrus aroma and taste!

Its versatility extends to ornamental gardening, with a range of upright and low growing ground cover and variegated varieties to choose from, with lavender-pink flowers attracting beneficial insects and adding pops of color.   

Used fresh, lemon thyme should be added at the end of cooking to retain flavor. Add leaves to salads and herbal teas and in sweet dishes such as cakes, cookies, and ice cream.  It is delicious infused in marinades or vinegar and used in herb rubs for chicken, fish, and potatoes.  It also retains its flavor when dried for longer-term storage.

Lemon thyme is cultivated in exactly the same way as common garden thyme. We have ample information on the amazing varieties of lemon thyme available for home gardening and how to care for your herbs.

Good Products For Growing Lemon Thyme:

Quick Care Guide

Lemon thyme
Lemon thyme has a citrusy aroma and flavor paired with thyme undertones. Source: zenryaku
Common Name(s)Lemon thyme, citrus thyme
Scientific NameThymus x citriodorus; Thymus citriodorus
Days to Harvest90–180 days from seed
LightFull sun
Water:Drought tolerant
SoilSlightly sandy soil
FertilizerTop dress with compost, liquid seaweed feed during the main growing season
PestsAphids; spider mites
DiseasesGrey mold; root rot

All About Lemon Thyme

Lemon thyme flowers
Most lemon thyme produces pinkish-purple flowers. Source: jiva

Lemon thyme, also commonly known as citrus thyme, is a member of the mint family, (Lamiaceae). It was thought to be a hybrid of Thymus vulgaris (common thyme) and Thymus pulegioides (broad-leaved thyme). However, recent DNA testing has proven lemon thyme to be a separate species and not a hybrid.  Despite these new findings, the botanical name for lemon thyme remains Thymus x citriodorus

Native to mountainous regions of the Mediterranean, lemon thyme is an evergreen, woody shrub-like herb that thrives in arid climates and poor soils.  Clusters of tiny aromatic lance-shaped leaves ¼ inch long grow along young plant stems and vary in color from mid to dark green, streaked with silver, white, and yellow.  Lavender-pink two-lipped flowers appear from late spring/early summer and draw in pollinating insects.  Lemon thyme has an upright growth habit growing to around 12 inches (30cms) in height and 12 to 24 inches (30cms to 60cms) across depending on variety.

Lemon thyme is grown for leaves, but the flower has the same lemon scent and makes an attractive garnish.  The thyme-lemon aroma and flavor are at its best before flowering and when harvested in the morning.

The small size and preference for poor, free-draining soils make lemon thyme plants a natural choice for container gardening. Grow alongside other Mediterranean herbs such as sage and rosemary that enjoy the same conditions.  Lemon thyme plants have many uses in the garden as an ornamental and culinary herb. There are many varieties to choose from, each with its own unique selling point.  

Cultivars

‘Archers Gold’: This is a low-growing lemon thyme plant that looks great in rockeries and as a ground cover between pavers.  Excellent culinary flavor.

‘Silver Queen’: A stunning ornamental lemon-scented thyme plant with silver/white leaf margins making it stand out from other varieties. It grows upright to 10 inches in height.  Good culinary flavor.

‘Golden Lemon’, ‘Golden Queen’, and ‘Aurea’: All three of these lemon thyme cultivars are similar in appearance with variegated golden lemon-scented foliage.  Similar to ‘Silver Queen’, they stand out from other herbs in the garden and are attractive as an ornamental as well as providing excellent flavor.

‘Lime’: lime-scented upright thyme plant with bright green leaves growing to 12 inches high.  Very citrusy in its aroma.

Planting

Growing lemon thyme from seed may test your patience!  Germination can take up to a month and is often sporadic. Sourcing seeds of a specific cultivar can also prove difficult.  The best method to propagate lemon thyme is through plantings of vegetative cuttings. These will provide an exact clone of the parent plant.

Lemon thyme plants thrive in full sun and well-drained soil and will tolerate a bit of neglect in terms of feeding and watering. The best time to plant shop-bought plants and transplants in the ground is after the last spring frost. Simply choose a sunny spot in the garden with well-drained soil. Prepare a planting hole deep enough to accommodate the root ball but not too deep to cover the main stem; this may cause stem rot.  Space plants 12-18 inches apart (30-45 cms). Alternatively, choose a pot filled with a mix of horticultural grit and compost.  Lemon thyme plants grow well indoors on a south-facing windowsill or in a well-ventilated greenhouse.  

Caring For Lemon Thyme

Young lemon thyme plant
Most lemon thyme is variegated in color, but not all of it. Source: matthew_middleton

New to gardening?  Then lemon thyme is a great herb to start with!  Below are some growing tips that might help.

Sun and Temperature

Grow lemon thyme plants in full sun with a minimum of 6 hrs light and temperatures ranging from 68°F to 86°F (20-30°C).  Surprisingly, most thyme plants can survive freezing temperatures.  Hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9. If growing lemon thyme in zones lower than 5, consider planting in a pot so that you can bring it indoors to overwinter.

Water and Humidity

Lemon thyme plants should be watered in the morning when the soil has completely dried out. Watering over the winter is not necessary unless thyme plants are showing signs of drought stress.  Maintain low humidity levels and good air circulation if growing indoors. 

Soil

Plant lemon thyme in free-draining sandy soils with a pH ranging from 6.0 to 8.0. Amend heavy, wet garden soils with compost and horticultural grit to improve drainage.

Fertilizing

Lemon thyme plant is native to arid mountainous regions with poor, thin soils.  They do not require a lot of fertilizer. A light mulch of compost or leaf mold in autumn and spring will protect roots from frost and provide adequate nutrients for the growing season. For an extra boost, provide liquid seaweed fertilizer in spring.

Pruning

Regular harvesting keeps your lemon thyme in shape and encourages new growth. Prune out any flowers as they appear to prolong maximum citrus flavor and to keep the plant productive. 

Unharvested plants may require a hard prune in late fall to prepare them for winter as frosts can damage soft growth. Prune branches back by a third, saving any clippings for drying. Perennial lemon thyme plants can become woody with age and need replacing. Regular harvesting and pruning will keep your plants in good condition for longer.

Propagation

Propagate lemon thyme from seed, cuttings, division, and air layering.  Full instructions on each of these methods can be found in our growing thyme article here.

Harvesting and Storing

Large lemon thyme patch
As they spread, lemon thyme plants can reach a couple feet across in size. Source: Satrina0

Lemon thyme is simple to harvest and one of the easiest herbs to dry for long-term storage. It’s a must to keep on hand for cooking!

Harvesting

As an evergreen perennial herb, lemon thyme plants have a long harvest season.  For the best lemon flavor, harvest in the morning and before a plant flowers in late spring. Plants propagated from seed or cuttings should be ready for harvest around 3-6 months.  Snip off as many stems as required.  Wash thoroughly under running water to remove any bugs and dirt that can be caught in the clusters of tiny leaves. 

Storing

Fresh lemon thyme will store in the fridge for up to a week wrapped in damp paper towels. For longer-term storage, place leaves in a dehydrator or a low oven or hang stems up in a cool, dark room until dry.  Once completely dry, strip the tiny leaves from the stems and store them in an airtight container. The best flavor will be in the first year for your thyme. Lemon notes will fade first as it ages. Unlike other spice varieties, you will find this will last a smidge longer in your spice cabinet while still retaining flavor.

Troubleshooting

Green lemon thyme
Some cultivars lack variegation, such as this lemon thyme plant. Source: yummysmellsca

Lemon thyme is usually problem-free.  However, incorrect growing conditions may result in weak plants at risk from pests and diseases. 

Growing Problems

Plants will deteriorate if grown in shade. For healthy plants, grow lemon thyme in full sun and well-drained soil.

Pests

Aphids (Aphidoidea), are small, sticky flies that feed on the sap of new plant growth.  Treat biologically through the release of beneficial insects that feed on aphids, such as ladybug larvae (cococinella septempunctata). Alternatively, grow flowers that attract beneficial insects into your garden.  A quick spray of organic insecticidal soap or neem oil will kill aphids.  Squishing them with fingers or a quick blast of water can help reduce numbers. 

Spider mites (Tetranychidae), adults are reddish-brown, living in large colonies on the underside of foliage and thrive in hot, dry environments and feed on plant juices.  Look out for fine webbing between stems and plants showing signs of decline.  Spider mites can be resistant to insecticides. Remove and destroy the worst affected parts and entire plants if necessary, to prevent the spread to unaffected areas of the garden. 

Diseases

Botrytis cinerea, commonly known as grey mold is an airborne disease prevalent in mild, damp weather.  It targets weak, damaged, or stressed plants. Symptoms include wilting stems, brown discoloration of foliage, and grey furry fungal growth.  High air humidity creates the perfect environment for botrytis. Remove and destroy affected plants to prevent further spread.  Good plant husbandry methods such as harvesting carefully; keeping the ground clear of decaying debris; watering only when necessary and providing adequate spacing to allow good air circulation will help reduce the risk.

Wet, heavy soils can cause root rot. Plant in well-draining soil that mimics the plant’s natural environment, preferably a sandy blend that allows excess water to easily flow through.

Frequently Asked Questions

Growing lemon thyme
Growing lemon thyme is a relatively easy process. Source: piX1966

Q: What is the difference between thyme and lemon thyme?

A: The main difference between thyme and lemon thyme is that aromatic leaves of lemon thyme have a strong scent and taste of lemon in addition to the savory thyme flavor.

Q: Does lemon thyme come back every year?

A:  Lemon thyme is an evergreen, woody shrub-like perennial herb that grows all year round.