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How to Grow Red Creeping Thyme in Australia

Creeping thyme is a broad collection of species including wild thyme which typically flower at the beginning of Spring. There are over 350 species in the genus Thymus and all are edible. 

Its fragrant foliage forms a lush carpet and thrives in Australian gardens, usually creeping thyme is grown for ornamental purposes and can totally transform your outdoor space.

Thymus vulgaris is normally the first choice for edible purposes however Thymus Coccineus Group plants (red creeping thyme) can also be used to flavour your culinary dishes. It has a refreshing and mint-like aroma as it belongs to the Lamiacea family (mint, sage, etc.)  and has always been a firm favourite in the kitchen garden and stalwart for herb gardens. 

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Red Creeping Thyme as ground cover

Source:  Heeman's

Family:

Lamiaceae

Genus:

Thymus

Species:

Coccineus group

Common name:

Red creeping thyme

Origin:

European and North Africa

Location:  

Outdoor

Type:  

Herbaceous Perennial, Ground Cover

Growth: 

5-10cm tall, 30cm spread

Sun requirements: 

Full sun

Foliage colour: 

Green

Flower colour: 

Red/Purple

Flowering: 

Late spring to summer

Edible parts: 

Leaves and flowers

Maintenance level:

Low

Poisonous for pets: 

Pet safe

What is Red Creeping Thyme?

There are several plants generally referred to as red creeping thyme, but the most common is Thymus Coccineus Group, a cultivated group of thymes with several named varieties. The other thyme species commonly called red creeping thyme is Thymus serpyllum (syn. Thymus serpyllum coccineus).

While there are conflicting registers of these names, the fundamental characteristics are the same: prostrate, red-flowered, creeping, evergreen herbaceous perennials. And they all grow best in the same conditions; full sun, rich soil, good drainage.

Red Creeping Thyme is a hardy, ground cover thyme with greyish-green ovate leaves, which have a mint and gentle lemon fragrance, strengths are dependent on the variety. The abundance of its minuscule flowers makes all thymes constant bee magnets attracting a whole host of pollinators to your garden. 

Creeping thyme is part of the Lamiaceae family, which means it shares that ability to readily root from any node that touches the soil, happily creeping and colonising areas of your garden it deems fit. 

Thymus Coccineus Group Synonyms and Naming

Thymus Coccineus Group is the proper name for Red Creeping Thyme, and does not fall into traditional genus-species categorisation. The group was previously classified as Thymus serpyllum ‘Coccineus’, but is not a cultivar, and a common synonym is Thymus praecox ‘Coccineus’.

Very occasionally, Thymus Coccineus Group plants are referred to as Thymus coccineus as though it was a specific species. To confuse matters more, the common name for several plants that are true Thymus serpyllum or Thymus praecox cultivars or subspecies, is also Red Creeping Thyme.

For clarity, in this article we are talking only about growing Thymus Coccineus Group when we refer to Red Creeping Thyme.

What is Red Creeping Thyme’s Natural Habitat?

Red creeping thyme is native to most of Europe’s mainland and can also be found in Africa and parts of Asia. Its creeping nature is an indicator of where this mat-forming plant is happiest, growing on hillsides, rocky areas of roads and riversides, and even in sandbanks.

Thyme is a herb that loves to live its life in a Mediterranean climate, with its roots loosely free-draining and its leaves basking in the sunshine.  

Common Uses for Red Creeping Thyme

Red creeping thyme is an extremely effective ground cover plant, so it's used often as a weed suppressant as its thick and carpet-like form makes it hard for weeds to germinate and grow. It also acts as a soil stabiliser in areas where erosion control is needed. 

Often used as an attractive alternative to lawn, creeping thyme can provide a pollinator haven. If used instead of grass on the maybe less trodden areas of your garden, thyme will provide that constant green carpet with the added benefit of a floral display. 

Wild thymes such as creeping thyme do contain an essential oil that has been used medicinally for years due to its antibacterial effects.

Reportedly used in several treatments of gastrointestinal medicine, creeping thyme has been taken by mouth to relieve upset stomachs, diarrhoea, intestinal gas and even to treat parasitic worms. It’s also known to be a diuretic so has been used in the treatment of urinary tract infections.

The presence of thymol essential oil gives a strong antibacterial component, and creeping thyme is often used as a natural mouthwash that treats oral infections. These antibacterial properties are also found to be very useful in the treatment of any upper respiratory system infections such as bronchitis.

Edible uses & Identifying Red Creeping Thyme

As with all other thyme plants, red creeping thyme is edible and is often used to flavour food, especially Mediterranean-inspired dishes. Thymus vulgaris is more commonly used in cooking.

For no particular reason other than being pigeonholed, the Thymus Coccineus Group are known as the ornamental thyme. If you are partial to fresh herb tea infusions and experimental ‘bouquet garni’ additions to your cooking, creeping thyme is a perfect addition to your kitchen garden.

The Best Red Creeping Thyme Varieties and Cultivars to Grow in Australia

There are many thyme cultivars worth considering, but the reds, purples and deep pinks that are offered by the named varieties listed below are without equals. Their colouring, in flower for most of summer, and confident spread, make them ideal for all sorts of landscape design uses - and all are edible.

1. Thymus serpyllum ‘Pink Chintz’

The pink or white flowers of Thyme ‘Pink Chintz’ are the only real difference between this pink creeping thyme and the more popular red creeping thyme. Despite the subtle differences, the impact is the same, offering spectacular swathes of flowers all summer long.

2. Thymus serpyllum ‘Ruby Glow’

‘Ruby Glow’ is a wonderful creeping thyme, with upright red flowers that add to the density of its mounded form. Each plant will spread out around 30cm, but with a much greater overall spread thanks to rooting stems and some self-seeding – particularly in sandy soils.

Thymus serpyllum ‘Ruby Glow’ is a good choice for more informal gardens or container gardens, where its rough and ready texture adds depth, rather than tidy ground cover.

3. Thymus serpyllum ‘Magic Carpet’

In gravel or sandy soils, Thymus serpyllum ‘Magic Carpet’ is a wonderful alternative to the Coccineus Group of thymes. Its deep ruby-red flowers stay close to the cushion-forming foliage, which creates a spectacularly dense display of red flowering creeping thyme.

In richer soils, still with good drainage, the flowers are closer to lilac, but the trailing carpet of colour is no less impressive.

4. Thymus Coccineus Group ‘Purple Beauty’

If you don’t want to go for straightforward red creeping thyme, there is a wonderfully bold purple cultivar called ‘Purple Beauty’, one of only a handful of cultivars of true red creeping thyme (the Coccineus group).

It grows to a larger-than-normal mound, roughly 45cm across, and its stem will trail densely out of pots and hanging baskets.

How to Grow Red Creeping Thyme

Creeping thyme is very easy to grow and care for, given the right conditions red creeping thyme will look after itself and reward you with a beautiful blanket of foliage and flowers.

The absolute basic requirements for growing red creeping thyme are explained below, followed by propagation tips, pest guides and a handy collection of tips on how to store and preserve your homegrown creeping thyme.

Soil

Thyme loves sandy, gritty, well-drained soil with a neutral to slightly alkaline pH. It naturalises in really arid conditions and seems to thrive on neglect. The only complicated thing about growing thyme, particularly if you are planting young plants into containers, is that they should always start with quite rich soil. 

Finding the balance between rich, nutritional soil, and well-drained conditions can be tricky, but by using a good quality peat-free compost, mixed with sandy topsoil and grit, you can create the ideal conditions in pots or the ground.

Sun

Growing in full sun will benefit your thyme more than anything else but it will tolerate some shade. The only real difference between red creeping thyme in full sun and red creeping thyme in shade is the flowering duration. Brighter conditions will trigger much longer flowering periods and richer blooms.

Being a sun lover, creeping thyme will do best in warmer conditions, but can grow in cooler climates providing drainage is present. Extremely harsh winters can cause thyme to shed all foliage. 

Moisture

Damp soil is the worst enemy of creeping thyme. Thymus Coccineus Group plants are fully hardy but are susceptible to root rot in cold and wet conditions. Keeping your thyme in a free-draining area will ensure its feet don’t sit in cold water for too long. 

For the first year after planting, it is important to regularly water red creeping thyme, but once it is flowering and spreading properly in the second year, it shouldn’t need watering.

Growing Red Creeping Thyme in Pots

Red creeping thyme is a brilliant plant for pot gardening. If you have a small space, it can be planted along with other herbs that like similar conditions.

It will grow happily alongside prostrate rosemary, chives, and lemon verbena for a flavour-enhancing container that will work just as well on a windowsill as it will in a hanging basket.

Pot growing thyme is a surefire way to provide optimal drainage and even potential relocation of the plant during very wet spells. In cooler southern parts of Australia, it can be beneficial to move pots of thyme into greenhouses or indoors during wetter months.

Using Red Creeping Thyme as a Lawn Alternative or Ground Cover

Red creeping thyme takes a while to get properly established, and usually won’t start to spread properly until its second year. If you’re willing to wait it is an exceptionally useful lawn alternative, though only in an aesthetic sense.

Red creeping thyme can be walked on and kicked, but it is not as tough as grass, and will eventually succumb to the damage of constant foot traffic. Its best use is as a ground cover plant crawling between stepping stones, or trailing over stone walls. 

Prepare the soil as above, with plenty of compost, paired with plenty of grit.

Pruning Red Creeping Thyme

Occasional pruning will benefit red creeping thyme. These ground cover plants have a habit of getting leggy as they mature. More mature stems can become twiggy and bare, and cutting down into old wood may not always regenerate so it is important to prune at least once a year to maintain a healthy shrub. 

The best time for pruning is straight after their first flowering, typically in mid-summer. 

How to Propagate Red Creeping Thyme

There are few simpler plants to propagate. Red creeping thyme germinates readily from seed, roots in water or soil as cuttings, and established clumps can easily be divided or encouraged to root from long stems.

Two of our favourite methods, sowing and cuttings are covered in more detail below.

Propagating Red Creeping Thyme from Seeds

Creeping red thyme seed is widely available and is a very easy seed to sow and grow, and can be a great way to get your children enamoured with gardening.

Sow red creeping thyme seed after any chance of frost has passed (in the cooler regions of Australia) either in situ outdoors or on the surface of a tray of peat-free compost with added grit or drainage. 

In subtropical areas, it is best to sow from August-November. During the dry season in most tropical regions of Australia, it is best to sow thyme from April-June.

Thyme mostly needs light to germinate so it is important to keep the seed just on the surface uncovered. Then water your seed tray from below or carefully from above. 

Note: Red creeping thyme is an open-pollinated variety, this means you can save any of the seed and it will come true to the original plant. 

Red Creeping Thyme Propagation from Cuttings and Division

Creeping thyme will readily grow from cutting material, its heritage in the mint family gives it very regenerative nodes that will root when in contact with soil. 

  1. Take cuttings, including at least two nodes 
  2. Plant them gently in well-drained soil in small plastic pots
  3. Cover with a plastic bag to keep the humidity in
  4. Keep moist by misting and your Thymus ‘Coccineus’ should root well within 2-3 weeks

Note: You can also root creeping thyme by placing cut stems into a glass of clean water. They will root within a week but sometimes have trouble when transplanted into the soil as the roots are easily shocked by the changing conditions.

Creeping thyme can also be layered very easily from existing stock. By pinning a suitable stem down to the ground, a stem including a node or two, thyme can root and eventually be separated from the parent plant. 

Mark the pinned section with a cane so you remember it and dig it up a month or two later when the stem has rooted. This method can be done on any stems that have naturally rooted, especially if they have developed into more mature plants, giving instantly divisible new plants for elsewhere in the garden.

Harvesting Red Creeping Thyme

Wild thyme can be quite slow-growing, but once established it does look after itself. The best leaves are harvested from older plants, so if growing from seed we suggest that you leave plants until at least their second year before harvesting. 

Once properly established you can harvest thyme all year round. Use clean scissors or secateurs, as every cut can open potential infection sites for the plant. 

How to Store Red Creeping Thyme

Thyme of all varieties can be stored well by drying, making oils, or even freezing once chopped. Once dried, thyme will store for several years but only has its full flavour for the first six months.

To maximise its usefulness and preserve its flavour, store it away from sunlight, in a cool dark space, ideally in an airtight container. The leaves can be ground to create a powdered spice or added whole to sauces.

Hanging thyme cuttings in a cool and dry area will slowly and evenly dry your herb for future use. 

Red Creeping Thyme Pests and Diseases

A regular complaint of red creeping thyme is root rot. Thyme can tolerate drought and neglect but will succumb quickly to wet and cold conditions. Having root rot and humid conditions will also make them much more susceptible to fungal diseases like powdery mildew.

Root rot and fungal problems can be prevented by proper drainage and adequate spacing between plants, thyme will never want to be shrouded amongst the border, it wants as much sun and space as you can give it. 

Thyme can be susceptible to spider mites and aphids. Remember though, with edible crops it is always best to practise organic pest control such as a strong spray of water or encouraging beneficial insects to predate these pests. 

Red Creeping Thyme Frequently Asked Questions

Can red creeping thyme grow in Australia?

Red creeping thyme grows well in nearly all parts of Australia. It is a classic Mediterranean herb, with woody stems and semi-evergreen foliage, which remains green all year round in warm climates. Provided its roots don’t sit in water over winter, it can be grown easily in Australia.

What are the disadvantages of red creeping thyme?

One big disadvantage of creeping thyme, particularly when used as a direct lawn replacement, is that it can be damaged by regular walking. Occasionally crushing the stems when walking past is fine, so it works well in paths, or spilling out from beds and borders, but it should only be used as an ornamental lawn replacement, not a practical one.

How quickly does creeping thyme spread?

Creeping thyme spreads quickly once roots are established. In their first year, they tend to stall and remain roughly the size they are when you plant them. Watering regularly in well-drained soil will ensure they root well. Once rooted, they will reach their full size (30cm across) within three years.

Is creeping thyme safe for dogs?

Creeping thyme is safe for dogs. It isn’t good for them, but eating a small amount won’t harm them either. Most dogs will generally steer clear of creeping thyme as the strong fragrance is quite unpleasant for them.

Can I put red creeping thyme in my lawn?

Red creeping thyme can be used as a lawn alternative, but it isn’t as hardy as mown grass. The biggest benefit of using creeping thyme as a lawn alternative is its drought tolerance.

After the first year, it will happily cope with prolonged drought, so is much lower maintenance than traditional lawns.

Is creeping thyme safe for cats?

Red creeping thyme is definitely safe for cats. In theory, its smell should put them off it, but ours regularly chew on our indoor creeping thyme. In large quantities, it can give them some gastrointestinal upset, but in small doses, it offers a good source of vitamin C.

Why is my creeping thyme dying?

One common issue with creeping thyme is the blackening of its stems and leaves. This can start from the centre of the plant, and develop quickly, giving a look of dry, underwatered thyme.

However, the cause is usually overwatering causing the roots to stop sending water and nutrients to the foliage. Check the soil, and dig out any severely damaged sections.

Does creeping thyme bloom all year?

Creeping thyme can bloom all year-round indoors with regular deadheading, but in most cases will bloom from late spring through to late summer. Deadheading can be done with one chop after the first flush of flowers, or by pinching out spent flowers.

Is creeping thyme an evergreen plant?

Creeping thyme is an evergreen perennial, but its leaves will drop in cold or wet winters, leaving dry-looking stems that should be cut back to the base in early spring.

Is creeping thyme good for wildlife?

Creeping thyme is an outstandingly useful plant for wildlife gardens. It is a key source of pollen that helps to flavour honey if bees use it as a pollen source. The flowers are nectar-rich, and red creeping thyme, in particular, will attract most native daytime pollinators.

Add Beauty and Charm to Any Outdoor Space with Red Creeping Thyme

Creeping red thyme should be on the shopping list for any wildlife gardener. There is no denying its benefit when you see that carpet of flowers, alive with buzzing and pollinating insects.

It’s one of those plants that you can always shoehorn into your collection too. No matter what our planting pallet or colour scheme is, it will instantly fill your space with colour, adding an ideal finishing touch to your garden. 

Red creeping thyme gives much-needed resilience in our changing environment. All whilst supporting our soil health and pollinators at the same time with its vibrant and aromatic flowers and foliage. What an all-rounder.

Last Updated on April 15, 2024

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About the author 

Maisie Blevins

In 2021, Aussie Green Thumb warmly welcomed me into their team and I couldn't be happier.

I am Maisie Blevins and I live in the North East of NSW and have learned over the years how to adapt my love of gardening to the surrounding environment, be it perfect weather, drought or floods.

I provide our audience with constant inspiration with the plants I grow and the gardening information I provide at Aussie Green Thumb.

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