This is my trusty lemon balm plant. He's not very big right now, only about a foot tall, but he is a reliable soul with much fortitude. I got the first start of this fellow from my dear friend Lalie, back in Colorado about ten years ago. He had withstood crazy landlords back there who came over and put weed killer on all of my plants one day. When we moved to Utah, I dug up a division and planted it in a pot, and drug it here. He survived the drive and then lived through a very hot summer on the porch while we looked for a place to plant ourselves. His next home was in the backyard where more crazy landlords would randomly come over and dig up my plants or put more weed killer on them. Last summer when we bought our lovely little bungalow, I again dug this guy up and brought him here to his forever home in our backyard paradise, where no crazy people are allowed (except me!) So let me tell you a little more about why I like lemon balm.
Common name: Lemon Balm
Latin: Melissa officinalis
This beauty is an upright, hardy perennial, with broad, oval, toothed leaves, and grows to about two feet tall or more. It's a member of the mint family, which you can tell by its square stems. It's a wonderful vibrant spring green color, with a refreshing lemony scent. Lemon balm is native to Southern Europe and North Africa, and is now cultivated and grows wild all over the world.
Lemon balm was a favored plant of the Roman scholar Pliny. The Greek physician Dioscorides recommended applying it topically for dog and scorpion bites, and would follow up with an infusion of lemon balm in wine for the patient to drink. Ancient Arabs believed lemon balm to be good for heart disorders and for lifting the spirits. In colonial America its use was recorded in recipes from Old Williamsburg, and Thomas Jefferson planted it in his gardens at Monticello.
The British herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote that lemon balm "...causeth the mind and heart to become merry..." The herb has been used for centuries as a mild sedative, and the oil may inhibit bacteria and viruses. It's useful in treating menstrual discomfort and gives relief for migraine headaches. In my own experience, I have enjoyed the very pleasant, relaxing qualities of lemon balm taken as a tea. It is excellent for sending one off to the Land of Nod. I find that I am going to have to do further research into this herb, and I will come back and share that here. Much to my disappointment, I recently read (or maybe misread?) in Prescription for Herbal Healing: An Easy-to-Use A-Z Reference to Hundreds of Common Disorders and Their Herbal Remedies, that someone with thyroid disorders should not take lemon balm because of negative effects. Today however, I found this reference that suggests that it may actually be beneficial. Obviously I'll want to seek out the most reputable sources for information, but this gives me hope that I can continue with my late night cup of lemon balm tea.
I also like to use lemon balm leaves, chopped up in salads, or floating in some homemade lemonade. The leaves are best used fresh in recipes, but dried lemon balm works well for tea. I have found the dried leaves to have more of a sedative effect. By themselves, the tea is mild and lemony. For a more robust tea, you can add the lemon balm to black tea or to other mints. In recipes, lemon balm pairs well with broccoli, asparagus, lamb, shellfish, black pepper, and olives.
Lemon balm is an ingredient in the liqueurs Benedictine and Chartreuse. You can make your own lemon balm wine with a recipe from 1829. Dissolve 40 pounds of sugar in 9 gallons of very hot water. Pour this over 2 1/2 pounds of lemon balm and add "a little yeast". Let it sit, uncovered, for 24 hours, then cover and let it ferment for 6 weeks. Personally, I think I'll stick with my tea. I don't think I have any barrels large enough to concoct a batch of wine.
Lemon balm has uses for your beauty routine as well. It is cleansing for the skin; a steam facial with lemon balm is helpful for acne. Throw a few leaves in a hot bath and enjoy their uplifting fragrance.
Bee keepers used to rub lemon balm inside a hive to encourage a new swarm to stick around. The Latin name, Melissa, comes from the Greek word for bees. As an aside, one day I was looking through a packet of greeting cards and such from when I was a new baby. I came upon a scrap of paper where my parents had been writing practice names. One of them was Melissa. Maybe that's why I'm so into bees; I'm really Melissa. But I'm getting distracted. Anyway, Pliny claimed that bees used the scent of the lemon balm to get their bearings and find their way home.
In the lovers' language of flowers, a sprig of lemon balm, surreptitiously passed to a sweetheart, was used to convey messages of sympathy. You can use the leaves to polish your wooden furniture like the ladies in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. Or, you can rub those leaves on your picnic table to ward of the bugs.
Lemon balm is very easily grown from seed, cuttings, or divisions. Get some from your friend and you'll have a special association planted in your garden. The herb likes a well drained soil and does best in full sun, but will tolerate some shade.
The oils are most potent late in the summer, and the lower parts of the plant have the most concentrated oils. By pinching off the flowers when they start, you keep more oils in the leaves and therefor have more fragrance. You can harvest leaves and stems from your plant throughout the growing season, then at the end of the season, before your first frost, cut the entire plant down to two inches above the ground. Drying of the leaves and stems is best done during warm, dry weather, spread out on trays or sieves in the shade, immediately after harvesting. you can also tie it in a bunch and hang it upside down in a paper cone, but more air circulation is preferable. This is what I do at the end of the season though; when it's completely dry I crumble it all up and put it in an air tight jar.
So that concludes this week's Friday's Herbal. Can you believe it's getting cold and rainy here again? There have been rumors of more snow this weekend. Oh my! You have a beautiful sunny weekend where ever you are:)