Thymus Coccineus Group

I have held National Plant Collection of Thymus since the beginning of 1995. Over the years I have done a considerable amount of research into the names of thymes currently available in the nursery trade. It soon became apparent that the nomenclatural muddle was even greater than at first envisaged. However, in consultation with the RHS Advisory Panel on Nomenclature and Taxonomy, I am gradually resolving some of this muddle. The results of this work, including new names where necessary, can be seen each year in the new edition of the RHS Plant Finder.

I run a backgarden nursery, LW Plants, and when I sell thymes at plant sales and shows, I generally find that the most popular creeping thymes are those with dark crimson flowers.

Currently this thyme is listed in the RHS Plant Finder as Thymus 'Coccineus'. However, although plants available under this name usually have small oval leaves, some have small round leaves and for this reason I feel it would be more appropriate to treat these plants as part of a cultivar-group. In addition several thymes have been selected by nurserymen and been given cultivar names; T. serpyllum 'Atropurpureus', T. s 'Purpurteppich' and its seedling T. 'Purple Kiss' from Germany, T.s. 'Purple Beauty' from the Netherlands and T. 'Red Elf' from Britain. T. 'Hardstoft Red' has cream variegated leaves and is a sport which occurred at Hardstoft Herb Garden in Derbyshire. Although most creeping thyme growing in the wild has flowers in various shades of pink and mauve, we have found dark crimson plants growing at Malham in North Yorkshire. All these thymes have flowers 78A (Purple Group) with a darker centre 71A (Red-Purple Group). The use of the epithet serpyllum for these cultivars should be considered to be T. serpyllum auct. not T. serpyllum L. The Linnaean epithet has been widely misapplied to the common wild and cultivated thyme in this country and such plants are currently placed in T. polytrichus subsp. britannicus. I am involved in ongoing research into the distinctness of these two taxa.

The earliest reference I have found is in the 1889 catalogue of Backhouse of York, where it is listed as Thymus serpyllum coccineus and the description reads 'Too much can scarcely be said in praise of this beautiful variety of the mountain thyme forming as it does, perfect sheets of rich crimson blossoms'. Craven Nursery of Ingleborough listed it in 1902 and 1906 as Thymus serpyllum coccineus, describing it as 'deep magenta' and Six Hills Nursery of Stevenage listed it from 1910. It became widely available after the First World War as Thymus serpyllum coccineus from nurseries such as Ingwersens, Robinsons, Orchard Neville Nurseries, Stuart Boothman, Blooms of Bressingham, etc. It has also been awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit.

It is proposed that the name Thymus Coccineus Group should be used to designate dark crimson (78A/71A) creeping thyme with hairs on two sides of the stems and either round or oval leaves. Plants selected by nurserymen and given cultivar names will retain these names within the Coccineus Group, but without the specific name for the cultivars T. 'Atropurpureus', T. 'Purple Beauty' and T. 'Purpurteppich'. The Latin form of the epithet Coccineus is permissible as it is based on the pre1958 usage as a cultivar for plants that now fall within the new Group. There are however cultivars, either with dark crimson flowers, or with the epithet Coccineus, which should not be included in the new Group. Thymus s. coccineus 'Minor', which was introduced by Blooms of Bressingham in 1961, has much paler, purple-pink flowers 78C; T. s. coccineus 'Major', which was introduced by Six Hills Nursery in 1914, is probably a hybrid of T. pulegioides; and T. s. 'Fulney Red' has dark crimson flowers 78A, but the centre of the flower is white and not 71A.

This article was first published in Plant Heritage Vol. 8 No. 2, Autumn 2001

Page updated  April 2005