Thyme Out in Central Otago by Karen Phelps
It is a balmy spring day. The fragrance of thyme wafts up as colonial women wander, their dresses billowing in the breeze, among the mauve-coloured hills around Clyde and Alexandra in the South Island, gathering plentiful baskets of the wild herb.
At least that was the scene in the early part of the century and one local resident still remembers the tradition. "The women used to go and gather the thyme off the hills and sell it to the factory," she reminisces. "One woman even managed to pay for her daughter's wedding in this way."
It is thought that thyme (thymus vulgaris) was originally introduced to this area by gold diggers in the early 1870's. Obviously it found the climate agreeable as it has now spread to cover in excess of 2000 hectares of hill country surrounding Alexandra. This is so unusual that it is believed that Central Otago may be the only place in the world where common thyme grows wild apart from its Mediterranean homeland.
The factory this particular local speaks of is The Briar Herb Factory, which began processing the local thyme in the 1930's. The business gradually expanded and before long the trademark of 'Briar' became known throughout New Zealand, Auckland being the chief buyer.
Today The Briar Herb Factory (located on Fraser Street in Clyde) is a museum, an addition to the Clyde Historical Museum, which purchased the complex in 1977, and it contains the original herb processing machinery. When the thyme was picked, it was initially spread in the sun for drying before being placed on racks in the drying sheds. Once thoroughly dry it was put through a stripping machine, which removed the aromatic leaves. These leaves were then either sold in bulk to condiment manufacturers or mixed with other herbs and packaged for dispatch to the wholesale markets. In its heyday the factory was processing as much as 40,000 lbs per year, in addition to reasonable quantities of sage, mint and other herbs.
The museum also houses a range of other exhibits showing life during the early times of the district. Highlights include a replica rabitters' hut, various horse-drawn vehicles, early medical equipment (which sends a shiver down the spine), a blacksmith, farrier and wheelwright workshop, stables and harness room and an early settler household kitchen and laundry.
But be warned - authenticity is aimed at rather than modernity if you're adverse to dust and natural lighting. Kids will no doubt have fun, however, poking around all the old machinery and equipment.
To gain a true appreciation of life at this time a trip down the road to the Clyde Historical Museum (located on Blythe Street which intersects Fraser Street) is a must. The museum was initiated in 1879 with a collection gifted by Vincent Pyke (administrator of the Dunstan Goldfields). It is now situated in the old Dunstan Courthouse and shows the history of the region as compared with The Briar Herb Factory Museum, which concentrates on how the settlers lived.
Some of the most interesting displays here are those concerning the achievements of the early colonial women, Emily Siedeberg, for example, was one of the first female doctors in New Zealand. Also of interest is the list of essential clothing for a colonist's wife comprising twelve different items, as compared with the outfit of a 'lady' containing seventy different items! The museum also houses the original courtroom dock, leg irons, handcuffs and perhaps most interestingly a rare collection of moa bones and feathers found in caves around the district. There is also a more extensive collection of moa bones not on display, which may be viewed upon request.
On the way out I ask the museum attendant what has become of all the thyme today and she assures me it can still be found growing in abundance in the district. In fact Alexandra has hosted an annual Thyme Celebration every November since 1991, which features a variety of activities running over two weeks including guided tours, walks and art and craft displays all celebrating this unique herb growing in this unusual location.
Sadly thyme is no longer exported from this region due to rises in electricity, rail and maintenance costs but is instead imported from Turkey. "But the locals don't buy it," my friend says. "They still go up into the hills...."