Often when someone asks me what my most favorite herb would be, I enjoy the surprise on their face when they hear my answer: Lemon balm, I say, without any hesitation.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) isn’t at the top of most people’s favorites list. Basil, parsley and lavender are the most popular herbs in America, but lemon balm isn’t even on the top 10 list. But it is deserving of considerably more recognition.
Lemon balm is a perennial herb from the mint family (Lamiaceae). The plant, originally from the Mediterranean, is reliably hardy in nearly all parts of the United States. The mildly lemon-scented leaves are the parts used for tea, cookies, cakes, and medicines. One of my garden interns even made a lemon balm pie last year!
Since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, lemon balm has been cultivated as a valuable culinary and medicinal herb. It was once traditional to rub lemon balm leaves around the openings of bee hives to encourage the bees to produce more honey. For at least 2,000 years, lemon balm has been planted and encouraged in gardens and orchards to entice more bees for pollination.
This important herb is used for relieving upset stomach, bloating, intestinal gas, vomiting, colic, and menstrual cramps. It’s valued for its calming effects in soothing restlessness, sleeplessness and anxiety. Besides those uses, it can be applied as a poultice directly onto insect bites to remove the pain and swelling. According to the website WebMD (webmd.com), “Taking a standardized extract of lemon balm by mouth daily for four months seems to reduce agitation and improve symptoms of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.”
The 17th century Carmelite nuns (or monks, depending on what source you check) became famous for their “Carmelite Water,” which was a combination of lemon balm, the peels of lemons, nutmeg, coriander and angelica. The nuns used this tea or decoction (strong tea) in treating nervous headaches, upset stomach, depression and digestive problems.
Lemon balm in the form of cream or tincture has shown positive effects when treating cold sores (herpes labialis). Simply applying a lip balm with as little as 1 percent lemon balm extract reduces symptoms and speeds up healing time. The herb itself is known for being an anti-viral, therefore good for relieving colds and fevers. Dr. James Duke suggests that regular doses of lemon balm tea can help with chronic fatigue syndrome and the symptoms of shingles because of the herb's anti-viral actions.
For anxiety and mild depression, lemon balm is often combined with other calming herbs including valerian (Valeriana officinalis), chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and hops (Humulus lupulus), and drunk as a tea. A simple cup of hot lemon balm tea, by itself, helps encourage appetite.
But as good as the reported medicinal benefits of lemon balm are, it’s the culinary aspects that impress me. Back in the 1980s when I was hosting annual herb festivals at my farm, I began making lemon balm cookies and lemon balm cakes to serve to my guests. The flavor of this herb is satisfying to almost everyone, and the herb is so easy to grow that even beginning herb people can grow it with success.
Growing Lemon Balm
Lemon balm can be started from seed, although the most common way is to grow it from a plant or root division. Being in the larger mint family (Liminacea) it will spread somewhat from the roots, though not aggressively like its mintier cousins. It isn’t picky about soil, though it does require plenty of sunshine. While it will do fairly well in part shade, the more sun you give it, the better it will grow.
There are two important things to note about lemon balm. It can reseed itself somewhat without becoming a pest. That habit is easily prevented by the other important fact, which is, the more you harvest lemon balm leaves, the better the flavor will be. If you neglect this flavorful plant by not harvesting, the leaves will become slightly bitter and “soapy” tasting. To get the best flavor out of lemon balm, shear it with scissors, cutting it down by half or more, at least once a month. You can safely harvest three-quarters of the plant every three or four weeks and not harm it. By harvesting often, you won’t have any problems with it reseeding itself.
Bees and butterflies love this plant, and honey from bees that have fed on lemon balm is heavenly. The herb dries well and can also be used in herb jellies, iced herb teas and many, many other ways. Few insect pests bother lemon balm and it can be grown in the garden, in patio pots, along fence rows or in the perennial bed where the bright green leaves make everything around it look good.
Make Your Own Traditional Carmelite Water
(Also known as “Eau de Melisse des Carmes”)
This can be made from either dry or fresh herbs; if using fresh, use twice the amount listed.
• 1 1/4 cups vodka (to preserve the mixture)
• 3 tablespoons dried angelica root, or leaves and stalks
• 1/8 cup dried (or 1/4 cup fresh) lemon balm leaves
• 2 tablespoons lemon zest (avoid the pith)
Combine the herbs and vodka in a quart jar. Cover tightly and leave in a warm but dark place (pantry or cupboard) for two weeks. Jiggle or shake the jar slightly every day or two.
After two weeks, add the following:
• 1 tablespoon coriander seed, slightly crushed
• 1 whole nutmeg, cracked in a blender
• 2 tablespoons whole cloves
• 1 4-inch cinnamon stick
Leave for a week, then strain into a sterilized bottle and store in a cool place. Best if used within six months.
Jim Long writes and gardens in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. You can see and follow his gardening adventures on his blog: jimlongsgarden.blogspot.com.