Lemon balm is one of my favorite herbs for many reasons. To start, it is by far one of the easiest herbs to grow and it’s beautiful to look at, as well. I particularly like the way lemon balm attracts beneficial insects and butterflies to my garden. Occasionally, even the hummingbirds find it intriguing. I am also partial to lemon balm tea, especially on a cold winter night. It’s deep earthy lemony flavor brings back a touch of summer sunshine and its soothing and calming properties make it a valuable medicinal herb.
Sometimes referred to as Melissa or Sweet Melissa, Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is a member of the Lamiaceae, or Mint family of plants. Like other mint family members, lemon balm has scalloped, oval to heart-shaped leaves that grow opposite one another on square (four-sided) stems. These highly textured leaves are bright green on top and slightly whitish below. This is a great herb to share with kids, as the leaves are wonderfully fuzzy to touch and leave a trace of their lemon scent on the fingers. Most people don’t stop to look at the flowers of lemon balm because they are very small. But up close, the tiny white to pale pink two-lipped flowers form whorled spikes that are quite attractive to pollinating insects.
Depending on the type of soil and amount of sunlight, this spreading perennial herb can reach heights of 1 to 3 ft. with an equal spread. Like mint, lemon balm is quite hardy, even in very cold climates, provided it is mulched in winter. It prefers full sun to part shade and will grow best in fertile soil. Although lemon balm prefers moist soil, mature plants will easily endure periods of heat and drought.
Although lemon balm is easily started from seed, each plant can have a very different flavor. Therefore, I strongly recommend buying potted plants or taking divisions or stem cuttings from established plants. This way you can smell and taste the leaves before investing a lot of time or money into a plant with inferior taste. Set transplants 12 to 18 in. (30 to 46 cm) apart and pinch the tips back regularly throughout the growing season to encourage a bushier plant. To prevent scraggly or spindly growth, divide mature plants every three to five years.
Collect leaves of lemon balm any time before bloom or as flowers begin to open. The first harvest tends to be the sweetest and most fragrant. Cut stems to within 6 inches of the soil. Strip leaves from stems and dry on screens or hang in loose bunches out of direct sunlight until dry.
The smell and taste of common lemon balm is not as sharp or crisp as a lemon, rather it is rich, deep and woody, especially when dried. Newer cultivars have an improved lemony smell and taste. Lemon balm is wonderful when used to make hot or cold tea, and its flavor blends very well with black tea and herbs such as mint, lemon verbena, anise, fennel, and fenugreek. Leaves and flowers make uniquely flavorful jelly and herbed vinegar as well as creamy dressings, dips, and spreads. Add young leaves to fruit punch and green or fruit salads.
Lemon balm is a very strong anti-inflammatory and is recognized as a gentle sedative that can help relieve mild insomnia, depression and tension. It is also used to treat infection and inflammation of the upper respiratory tract and to reduce symptoms of cold and flu. It is especially effective at soothing indigestion, heartburn and stomachaches.
When taken orally, lemon balm has similar actions to non-steroidal anti-inflammatories such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen without the dangerous side effects that the long-term use of these drugs pose. Lemon balm also contains constituents that fight viral infections and is one of the best herbal treatments I have ever found for cold sores. Internal and topical applications of lemon balm have been shown to reduce the severity, duration, pain, and recurrence of cold sores, mouth ulcers and similar viral eruptions.
In addition to reducing the severity of cold sores, lemon balm also appears to speed healing and to reduce or inhibit secondary infections. Externally, it can be used to treat rashes, hives, insect bites, swellings, and minor wounds. There has been some indication within the scientific community that extracts of lemon balm are being considered in the treatment of mild Alzheimer’s disease.
Although it has been suggested that lemon balm may support normal function of the thyroid gland, anyone with hypothyroidism (low thyroid function), goiter, Hashimoto’s Disease, or those taking any kind of thyroid hormone such as anticholinergics or cholinergics should not take lemon balm in medicinal doses without first consulting a professional.
Lemon balm is an exceptionally attractive herb that stays very tidy looking with little pruning. The flowers of lemon balm are not excessively showy and can at times give the plant a leggy or ragged appearance; however, they are quite lovely when closely studied and will attract many beneficial insects to the garden. This pretty mint family member deserves a spot in the flower garden where its soft, sculpted leaves and pleasant smell will cheer up any gardener.
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