Melissa officinalis or 'Lemon balm' is a highly-scented herb, best known for its use in tea, but this fantastic herb has a number other uses. If you enjoy the liquors Benedictine and Chartreuse you may find the taste familiar as lemon balm is an ingredient in both. The leaves of lemon balm have the scent of lemon with a hint of mint. It is refreshing served in summer drinks such as Pimms or lemonade, use to flavour fruit, in sorbets and deserts or with a green salad. For cooking, lemon balm is a pleasant accent for fish or chicken and vegetables. Lemon balm compliments basil, chives, parsley, mint and dill, use to flavour oils or with other herbs in compound butters. You can make a wonderful herb wine from it too.
This perennial herb with heart-shaped leaves makes a nice green clump of medium-textured leaves among the other herbs and flowers in your garden. In hot areas lemon balm will remain green during mild winters. It is moderately shade-tolerant, much more so than most herbs. In hot, dry climates, it grows best in partial shade.
With a delicate lemon aroma, some gardeners plant it by a gate to smell it each time the gate brushes against the leaves as it opens and closes. Be sure to include stems in bouquets of summer flowers.
Sowing: Sow in late spring to late summer
The seeds need temperatures of around 20°C (68°F) to germinate.
Seeds can be sown indoors in trays or pots containing good quality seed compost, or can be sown directly where they are to grow. Sow seeds thinly in shallow drills in full sun. “Just cover” the seeds with a sprinkling of soil or vermiculite, as they need light to germinate. Germination 12 to 21 days. Days to maturity 30-40 days
They require consistently moist soil; do not let them dry out in between watering. Transplant when they have their first set of true leaves and are still small Lemon balm plants should be spaced 30 to 38cm (12 to 15 in) apart.
As an indoor potted herb, lemon balm can provide its fresh, light aroma to your home year round. Keep it in a sunny location, and don't let it go dry, it needs regular watering because the large leaves are big drinkers. To insure an even and regular supply of moisture, consider providing a wicking system for your plant. Use a quality prepared potting soil and select a pot that's on the small side, five inches or less. Potted plants do better when kept a bit crowded. If your plant starts to get leggy, it needs more sun.
Grown outdoors it prefers full sun, but is shade-tolerant. In hot, dry climates, it grows best in partial shade. Keep it moist in hot weather, and give it a layer of insulating mulch in areas that experience high temperatures in summer.
Over fertilizing will cause large but less flavourful leaves.
Lemon balm responds well to cutting, growing back twice as thick. Whenever your plant is looking tired due to drought, hail, insects, or other stress, just cut it back and let it rejuvenate itself with fresh, new growth. Lemon balm in will bloom toward the end of the season. Plants look tired when this happens, but if you snip the growing tips regularly to enjoy the leaves, flowers will hardly have a chance to form.
Lemon balm is quite prolific, as a member of the mint family; it will spread unless kept in check and therefore is ideal in a container garden or in a pot sunken into the soil.
The key to keeping this plant in great shape and to prevent it from seeding all over is to cut it back before the small insignificant flowers produce seeds.
Unlike other herbs which are at their best when the dew has dried off them in the morning, Lemon Balm should be harvested in mid to late afternoon when the oils are strongest and they are at their most aromatic. Leaves should be handled delicately as they tend to bruise and turn black
This resilient herb can be harvested throughout the summer months by snipping or pinching. It grows back quickly and tolerates heavy harvesting well. It can usually be harvested until the end of November.
Lemon balm can be harvested for fresh use once or twice a week and leaves can be kept in the fridge; they will keep for 3 to 4 days in a plastic bag, or can be frozen
To dry the leaves, hang small bunches of the stalks in a dark, airy place soon after cutting. The room should be no warmer than 15°C (60°F). Be sure to keep out of moisture, as leaves are prone to browning and more susceptible to mold. Crumble the dried leaves and store in an airtight container. The leaves lose some of their flavour when dried but should keep their flavour for 5 to 6 months.
The young, fresh leaves can be used in drinks, with fruit and milk puddings or a fruit salad. It also goes well with fish, chicken and game. Lemon balm compliments basil, chives, parsley, mint and dill.
Like many other herbs, it is best used fresh rather than dried and the flavour will be brighter if added near the end the cooking process.
The great Paracelsus called lemon balm "The elixir of life", It has been used as a tea for centuries, made from the fresh or dried leaves and is considered a “calming” herb.
In medieval times it was used medicinally to cure all forms of ailment from crooked necks to morning sickness, it was thought to be beneficial to help heal wounds, treat venomous insect bites and stings and for alleviating pain from gout.
Today it is used to induce relaxation and a sense of well being, improve appetite and aid digestion, and used to combat migraine, hysteria and depression. Often used in combination with other herbs, it is said to be useful against colds and fevers, influenza and catarrhal conditions. In the recent BBC series “Grow Your Own Drugs”, ethnobotanist James Wong discussed the healing power of lemon balm and presented a recipe to make a lemon balm lip salve to for cold sores
Lemon Balm makes a suitable companion to many other vegetables, fruits and herbs. It is especially beneficial to tomatoes, squashes, melons, broccoli, cauliflower, and other cabbage family plants.
Dried leaves can be made in to a herbal powder mixture and distributed throughout the garden to deter many insects.
- For bathing - Put 50 to 60 grams of the leaves with 1 litre of cold water and heat it through, add the liquid to your bath water.
- When dried, the fragrance remains sufficiently to warrant its use in potpourri.
- To attract bees and prevent swarming.
- To repel ants, flies and mosquitoes (contains Citronella) crush some leaves in your hand and rub the resultant oil on your skin
- Against insect bites
- As a furniture polish.
- Balm oil is still a favorite scent throughout the Middle East.
- A room fragrance. Shakespeare mentions that Lemon Balm was strewn on the floor of a room to freshen it in “The Merry Wives of Windsor”.
Native to the Eastern Mediterranean, West Asia and North Africa. The Arabs are thought to have brought the plant to Europe in the 10th Century.
Melissa gets its genus name from the Greek word for honeybee. From the Greek meli or melitos meaning ‘honey’.
When Linnaeus invented the binomial system of nomenclature, he gave the specific name 'officinalis' to plants (and sometimes animals) with an established medicinal, culinary, or other use. The word officinalis is derived from the Latin officina meaning a storeroom (of a monastery) for medicines and necessaries. It literally means 'of or belonging in an officina', and that it was officially recognised as a medicinal herb. It conjures up images of a storeroom where apothecaries and herbalists stored their herbs.
Bee keepers often rubbed (and in some cases, still do) the inside of a new hive to attract a swarm or prevent swarming and to induce the bees to return to the hives. Planted nearby the hive would mean the swarm would never leave. Lemon Balm, is often called Bee Balm, but should not be confused with another plant commonly called Bee Balm (Mondarda didyma)
Lemon balm is said to signify sympathy, pleasantry and longevity. On a romantic note, it is fun to ponder the fact that it was symbolically used to transmit messages to lovers. Maybe next time you want to send a love note you should tuck it into a little pot of lemon balm.
Lemon Balm was a key ingredient in Carmelite Water a perfume, beverage and medicinal elixir, invented in 1611 by Carmelite monks in Paris.
Many monks and nuns were dedicated herbalists who served as both doctor and pharmacist to their patients. Aromatic waters were one of their favorite prescriptions. If you have ever appreciated fine European liquor such as Benedictine, you are benefiting from the stills of early monastery infirmaries and herbariums.
The recipe for Carmelite Water was so prized that patents for it, under the name ‘Eau de Melisse des Carmes’, were granted by Louis XIV, XV, and XVI of France. This perfume patent was kept inviolate secret by the Carmelite friars who made it. Sold for hundreds of years, it still appears in German shops as ‘Klosterfqu Melissengeist’.
The extract of lemon balm is sometimes referred to as the "spirit" or "compound" of Melissa and is still listed in Germany's Pharmacopoeia. However, it has been largely displaced commercially by citronella oil (Cymbopogon nardus), a less expensive alternative with similar properties.
Dozens of modern recipes exist but the exact proportions of the original recipe remain unknown.
A Carmelite Water Recipe:
- 1 1/4 cups vodka.
- 3 tablespoons dried lemon balm leaves.
- 3 tablespoons dried angelica leaves, and stalks.
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, bruised.
- 1 nutmeg, cut into strips.
- 2 tablespoons cloves.
- cinnamon sticks.
1. Pour the vodka into a jar.
2. Add the remaining ingredients, cover tightly and shake.
3. Leave in a warm place for three weeks, shaking every day.
4. Strain into a sterilized bottle and store in a cool place. Use within six months.
- Additional Information
Packet Size 500mg Average Seed Count 800 seeds Common Name Bee Balm Sweet Balm, Balm Mint, Blue Balm. Other Common Names Honey Plant, Cure All, Sweet Melissa, Garden Balm. Family Lamiaceae Genus Melissa Species officinalis Hardiness Hardy Perennial Flowers Small off white blooms. Natural Flower Time Lemon balm in will bloom toward the end of the season. Foliage Heart-shaped leaves and makes a nice green clump of foliage. Height 30 to 45cm (12 to 18in). Spread 30 to 38cm (12 to 15in). Spacing Space 30 to 38cm (12 to 15 in) apart. Position Full sun to partial shade Aspect Keep it in a sunny location, but don't let Melissa get too dry. Time to Sow Sow in late spring to late summer Germination 21-30 days Harvest Unlike most herbs, Lemon Balm should be harvested
in mid to late afternoon when the oils are strongest.
Time to Harvest Harvest throughout the summer months.