Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
From Prehistory to Today
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), as its name implies, is a herb with lemony-flavoured leaves. It may be used anywhere a lemony flavour is desired. This herb gets its flavour from a high concentration of citronella, and yes, the crushed leaves of this herb will work very well to repel mosquitoes! And to make it even more desirable, Melissa is very effective against cold sores, too! This plant has been eaten since prehistory, and was known throughout the ancient world for its delicious taste and the power to attract bees and other helpful pollinators to gardens and farms.
Easy to grow, lemon balm is also cheap if you start it from seeds.
Growing your own Lemon Balm
Melissa grows very well in most temperate climates, and will tolerate shade well. Because of the large leaf surfaces, if you live in a dry area, you will need to water lemon balm frequently; otherwise, this plant needs little or no care. Harvesting it aggressively once established will keep it from spreading too far and taking over your garden. This herb self-seeds and also spreads quite far from one plant, so if you are worried about the space it wants to take over, it can be grown in containers.
If you are growing vegetables or fruits that need bee pollination, you will benefit greatly from growing this herb in your garden, because Melissa attracts bees when it flowers (melissa is the Greek word for bee).
If you are new to growing herbs, a good reference book will get you started. The Complete Book of Herbs: A Practical Guide to Growing and Using Herbs is one reference I really recommend, as it is useful not only for gardening, but for understanding what to do with the large quantities of herbs that each plant will produce.
If you like the taste of lemon balm, and want to use more of it, but aren't ready to grow it yourself yet, start with a package of leaves.
Anytime you want a lemony flavour in your cooking, Melissa comes to the rescue! This herb is great with fish or chicken; as a tea, hot or iced; as a sorbet or in ice creams or cheesecakes; as flavouring for candy; as an ingredient in soups or sauces; or for infusing flavour into salt or sugar. The raw leaves of Melissa are delicious in teas, salads, or with fruits, vegetables that go well with a citrus flavour. It pairs quite well with different varieties of mints, basils, oreganos, and thymes. Melissa leaves can be added to pesto or similar dishes, and you can even freeze it in ice cubes and add it to drinks of all kinds. However, some people do perceive the taste as being a bit "soapy," so go gently at first.
Check with your physician before consuming large amounts of Melissa if you have a problem with your thyroid; lemon balm has been known to interfere with the absorption of certain thyroid medications.
The officinalis part of the species name means that in the Middle Ages Melissa was thought to be useful medicinally; today's research proves that those medieval scientists actually knew what they were talking about! Numerous studies have been done on the benefits of consuming lemon balm for your health and this herb is generally recognized as safe.
A good reference book on using herbs for their medicinal value is invaluable for understanding their benefits and contraindications.
Lemon balm is a wonderful bed plant, and can be used around foundations, especially in clay soil, because of its tolerance for water. Just don't plant it too close to any door where people may feel threatened by bees during its flowering season. Other than that, once it is well established, it will need little to no care whatsoever.