Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Melissa, Sweet Melissa, Balm, Bee Balm (not to be confused with Monarda didyma), Sweet Balm, Honey Plant, English Balm
About This Plant
Lemon Balm is a sprawling, bushy perennial plant from the Lamiaceae, or Mint, family. This hardy plant is described with words such as “lively” and “uplifting”. It grows from one to three feet high in mounds that are equally wide. It can be overwintered as far north as USDA zones 4 or 5 and is cold hardy to -20 degrees fahrenheit. It will grow as far south as USDA zone 9 and is less tolerable of heat than it is the cold. Lemon Balm is most known for its fragrant and flavorful lemony nature and has a long history of use in both the kitchen and the apothecary. Its smell and taste are not as sharp or crisp as a lemon – it is more subtle, but rich and deep, even when dried. Planting Lemon Balm by a gate in the garden so that the gate brushes the plant each time it’s opened is a delightful way to enjoy this plant, as well as including stems of it in your bouquets of Summer flowers.
The toothed, opposite leaves of Lemon Balm are heart-shaped with scalloped edges. They are bright green on top and whitish below and are fuzzy to the touch. The leaves can grow up to four inches broad and one to three inches long. It grows in clumps of foliage and brushing or crushing the leaves emits a sweet lemon scent. Lemon Balm stems have the characteristically square shape commonly found in the Laminacea family. They are somewhat branching at the plant’s base and become more abundantly branching around the flower tips. The flowers are tiny, white, off-white, pale yellow, or pink in color and appear in whorls around the top of the stems with about four to twelve flowers in each whorl. The petite flowers appear in late summer, towards the end of the season and are not excessively showy. They can give the plant a leggy or ragged appearance but attract many beneficial insects including honey bees. Lemon Balm has a robust and sprawling root system and can be planted on hillsides to prevent erosion. Lemon Balm is hardy and sprawls, though not quite like other members of the Mint family. It does not send out root runners but insteads makes manageable clumps. It spreads itself by seeds rather than via rhizomes.
Lemon Balm was used medicinally as far back as 300 BC by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The first century Greek physician Dioscorides recorded its use as a remedy for toothaches, scorpion stings, dog bites, as well as to encourage menstruation and improve gout. The Moors brought Lemon Balm to Spain in the 7th century and by the Middle Ages it was cultivated throughout Europe. Lemon Balm was brought to North America by the early colonists who used it to make tea and potpourri as well as in apiary care to attract bees to hives. It was also used as a lemon substitute in jams and jellies. Thomas Jefferson listed Lemon Balm as one of 16 herbs in his list of “Objects for the garden this year” in his garden book in 1794. In plant lore, Lemon Balm is associated with health, longevity, and royalty. It is known to balance feelings and emotions. It was used in ritual baths to invoke the Goddess, making a person more appealing in the world of love and romance.
Lemon Balm’s genus name, Melissa, is derived from the Greek word meaning “bee”. Lemon Balm has long been known to attract bees and was often planted near hives to encourage bees to return. It should not be confused with Bee Balm (Monarda didyma). The species name, officinalis, was given to plants with an established medicinal, culinary, or other use.
Lemon Balm can be propagated in a variety of ways. Seeds can be sown directly in early Spring by broadcasting them onto the soil surface and covering them only lightly with soil. The seeds need light to germinate. Germination takes place in 12 to 21 days. Seeds can also be started indoors in early Spring. Cuttings can be taken in the Spring or Fall. If taken in the Spring, take a few inches from the soft tips of an established plant. If taken in the Fall, take a few inches from stems that are closer to the base of the crown that have not yet flowered. Lemon Balm is also easily propagated by division. Simply dig up clumps of an established plant in the early Spring or Fall when dormant, divide into smaller pieces and replant in pots or directly in the ground.
It is a good idea to harden off seedlings and cuttings outside for about a week before transplanting. Lemon Balm can be planted out as soon as the soil is ready to be worked in the Spring. Space the plants about 12-18” apart and water it immediately after transplanting.
Lemon Balm is a vigorous grower that can be cultivated in all manner of climates and conditions – damp, dry, disturbed areas from mountains to the sea. It is considered a cinch to grow and does not require any special soil conditions or fertilization. It will tolerate full sun or partial shade. If exposed to too much sun, it can lose its color however and some shade is said to improve its flavor. If grown in full sun it tends to be more compact and busy, while if grown in partial shade it can become more sprawling. An ideal environment includes moist soil, good drainage, and protection from hot weather. Allow for ample air circulation however as powdery mildew can be an issue.
Since Lemon Balm does tend to sprawl into large mounds, it’s a good idea to plant it somewhere it can stay long-term and expand. Or, it can be planted in containers. To limit its spreading, harvest the tops prior to flowing to prevent the plant from going to seed. Plants can be thinned throughout the season too which will help keep growth in check and help to improve air circulation, especially in hot and humid locations. About a third of the plant can be pruned at once by simply snapping off stems at the base which can then be used or dried for later use. Lemon balm responds well to cutting and in reality, the whole plant can actually be cut down to the base – you’ll have to wait a bit for it to regrow, but it will likely grow back with thicker, more lush foliage. Mature plants should be divided every three to five years to prevent them from becoming scraggly.
Lemon Balm is usually not affected by pests or disease. It contains the chemical compound citronella which is known to actually repel many pests. The citronella is what gives it its delightful scent.
Lemon Balm has many applications in the kitchen and apothecary. It can be harvested regularly throughout the growing season. The leaves are most flavorful when they are young and fresh. It’s best to harvest Lemon Balm in the mid to late afternoon when the oils are the strongest and at their most aromatic. The leaves should be handled delicately as they tend to bruise and turn black. Several inches of new growth can be cut and the leaves either removed or kept on the stems for drying. Large harvests can be done by cutting back the entire plant to an inch or two above ground level. This can be done several times throughout the season. Lemon Balm is best when fresh and does lose some of its flavor when dried, but overall dries and stores well. Fresh leaves will keep for three to four days when stored in a plastic bag in the fridge. If drying the herb, it needs to be dried quickly as excess moisture on the leaves will cause it to turn brown and lose flavor. Harvest on a dry day and tie stems together and hang in a dry, well-ventilated space. Once dried, leaves can be stripped from the stems and stored in an airtight container in a dark, dry location. Fresh Lemon Balm can also be frozen by chopping fresh leaves and mixing with cooking oil or water and freezing in ice cube trays.
Lemon Balm seeds maure in the late Summer and Fall once flowers have dried brown and the seeds are black. Roll the dried flowers or flower stalk in the palm of your hand using your fingers, crushing the plant material and exposing the tiny seeds. Seeds must then be collected by hand or by winnowing to separate the chaff from the seed.
- Apiary care
- Insect repellant
Lemon Balm makes an excellent cold or hot tea. It blends well with black tea and many other herbs such as Anise, Fennel, and Fenugreek. Be sure to cover the tea while it’s steeping to keep the essential oils from evaporating out. It can also be made into an excellent herbed vinegar or added to green or fruit salads. Lemon Balm is a tasty addition to creamy dressings, dips, and spreads and can be added to just about anything that might taste good with a hint of Lemon. Add it to appetisers, main courses, sandwiches, soups, sauces, and jams. It is great added to shortbread and sugar cookies – simply choose your favorite recipe and add a handful of fresh, chopped leaves. It enhances fish, chicken, vegetables and compliments Basil, Chives, Parsley, Mint, and Dill. It also makes a great base to pesto when added with equal parts Basil. Add Lemon Balm near the end of the cooking process for the brightest flavor.
Lemon Balm has a long history of use as a medicinal herb as well as being commonly used to add a delightful fragrance to oils, salves, lotions, and other cosmetics. It is high in antioxidants and is a good anti-inflammatory. When taken orally, it has a similar action to non-steroidal antiinflammatories such as aspirin or ibuprofen. It is a mild spasmodic and can help relieve tension headaches, back pain and other pain due to tension. Lemon Balm is a gentle sedative for mild insomnia, depression and tension and can be used in any kind of “nervous condition” such as heart palpitations. It is also used to support cognitive function in conditions such as Alzheimer’s. It is used to treat infections and inflammation of the upper respiratory tract and is used to treat the symptoms of cold and flu.
Lemon Balm soothes digestive complaints such as indigestion, heartburn, and stomachaches and helps to relieve sluggish digestion. The Carmelite monks and nuns of Paris in the early 1600’s used it in their digestive tonic, Carmelite Water. There have been many variations on the recipe since then and Rosemary Gladstar’s recipe includes Lemon Balm leaf, Angelica root, Coriander seed, Lemon peel, Nutmeg, brandy, and honey.
Scientific studies have proven that Lemon Balm, both internal use and topical applications, reduce the severity, duration, pain, and recurrence of cold sores, mouth ulcers, and other viral eruptions caused by the herpes virus including shingles.
Lemon Balm is safe for consumption by children. Its use is cautioned however with anyone with hypothyroidism, goiter, Hashimoto’s disease or anyone taking any kind of thyroid hormone such as anticholinergics or cholinergics.
Lemon Balm is native to the mountain areas of Southern Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and Africa. It has been naturalized around the world.