Thymus serphyllum

Departments - Green Guide

This enchanting groundcover features tiny purple to magenta flowers, but looks just as lovely when the foliage forms a dense, dark green mat.

September 1, 2020

Elfin thyme cascades over a rock wall in the garden of Michelle Bundy, Des Moines, Washington.
All photos by Mark Leichty

Elfin thyme has an almost magical look, as if it belongs in a fairytale, or better yet, a fairy garden. Thymus serphyllum is certainly at the top of my list of groundcovers that work in full sun and will tolerate moderate foot traffic. It has many uses in the landscape, from filling in around pavers, cascading lavishly over rock walls or as a stand-alone specimen in a rock or crevice garden. I have even seen grass lawns replaced with elfin thyme. It grows barely over an inch tall and is covered profusely with tiny purple to magenta flowers in summer. The flowers, though small, are loaded with nectar and are a sweet feast for bees and butterflies. The foliage itself is aromatic, though T. serphyllum is not used in cooking as often as its more common cousins Thymus vulgaris or Thymus citrodorus.

T. serphyllum

is native to most of Europe, northern Africa and parts of Asia. In the wild, it can be found growing in full sun in well-drained soils in a variety of settings including rocky outcrops, gravel eskers, hillsides, etc. The key cultural conditions are full sun and well-drained soils, and these conditions must be met if elfin thyme in to thrive in a garden setting. It is attractive even when not flowering, when it forms a dense dark green mat that upon close examination is formed by highly compacted leaves. The leaves are fringed with very fine translucent hairs which help the plant collect water during times of dryness, and elfin thyme is thus somewhat drought tolerant. It is extremely cold hardy, handling winter low temperatures of -25°F. There are few gardens in the continental U.S. that T. serphyllum would not thrive in, again provided it has full sun and well-drained soil. A 4-inch pot will spread to a diameter of about 18 inches in a couple of years.

Why grow Thymus serphyllum?

  • Elfin thyme has beautiful purple to magenta flowers that bloom from June–September.
  • It is pollinator and butterfly friendly.
  • It is drought tolerant.
  • Propagates easily from cuttings.
  • Use as a grass lawn replacement.
  • Deer and rabbits will leave it alone.
  • Tolerates moderate foot traffic.

Mark Leichty is the Director of Business Development at Little Prince of Oregon Nursery near Portland. He is a certified plant geek who enjoys visiting beautiful gardens and garden centers searching for rare and unique plants to satisfy his plant lust.