Lessons in Magical Herbalism: Lemon Balm
The first time I picked up some lemon balm starter plants was because of my son. He was a little tyke sitting in the Home Depot wagon child seat, and he was smelling the herbs the way I’d taught him – by running his finger gently over a leaf and sniffing his hand. He loved lemon balm—said it smelled like a ‘lemon lollypop.’ And by gosh, he was right—it did. So I grabbed a couple of plants.
Well, that little tyke that I once pushed around in a wagon now towers over me, but lemon balm is still a staple in my herb garden. It’s in the mint family and has a wonderfully sweet citrus scent and flavor. The bees actually love the nectar from its white flowers, so if you’re trying to draw bees your yard, this is a good plant for it—it’s scientific name, Melissa, is actually Greek for ‘honey bee’.
Such a sweet and unassuming little plant, lemon balm has such a rich and interesting history.
Details About Lemon Balm
lemon balm, lemon balsam, bee balm (though another plant goes by this name), bam mint, Melissa, sweet balm, sweet Melissa, sweet Mary
USDA hardiness zones:
excels in 4 – 9, though can be grown in other zones as a tender perennial or annual.
Sweet Melissa - Beautiful Lemon Balm
Growing Lemon Balm
Lemon balm, like most plants in the mint family, is a quick grower and doesn’t require a lot of attention. You can start it with seeds, cuttings or by dividing the the plant (just dig up the root ball and break it in two, then bury both halves separately).
Start them in pots in early spring. You’ll get the best of your harvest in late spring, they'll flounder a little in the heat of the summer, and will perk up again in the fall. If you live where it’s mild, you can start plants in the fall and enjoy lemon balm through the winter
They’re not fussy about soil—any fairly good well-draining soil will make them happy. I stick them in standard potting soil mixes without doing anything special and they grow well for me. If your ground soil is on the poor side, add a little compost into it before planting.
Lemon balm is one of those few herbs that don’t like a lot of sun, so put them out in partial shade (they prefer the gentle light of morning or late day to full afternoon sun), or in dappled shade.
If you live along the southern states where it gets very hot in the summer, you would do best to plant them in pots, or where they’ll get almost full shade all day in the summer. The leaves begin to wash out to yellow if they get too much sun, so if you see that happening just put something in front of your plants to relieve them of direct afternoon light.
Water and Feeding:
Again, nothing particularly special is needed for lemon balm; keep it moist, but not soggy. You can let it dry out a little between waterings but don’t let it become too parched. And give it a little boost in the spring and the fall with some fertilizer (a compost tea is good, or mulch with compost).
A good rule of thumb to keep lemon balm thriving is the “all things in moderation” approach: not too hot, not too cold; not too dry, not too wet; not to shady, not too sunny; not too alkaline, not too acidic; don’t over-feed it, don’t starve it. Stick to that and your lemon balm will do fine.
If the plant is floundering, cut them down to just a few inches; they'll rest, recover and come back.
Lemon Balm Blossoms
Lemon balm doesn’t do well in cooking—its delicate oils can easily be destroyed by excessive heat. That’s about the only drawback.
It’s wonderful for adding a lemony flavor to vegetable salads or fruit salads. Making lemon sun tea or hot tea with fresh lemon balm, and my favorite use is to add a bit of a lemon lift to smoothies (especially green smoothies).
Lemon balm also makes a nice garnish due to its fragrant aroma; instead of chopped parsley over your freshly cooked fish, try some chopped lemon balm just before serving. It can be chopped up and added to cool meats like chicken and tuna salad, to give them a hint of a lemony flavor.
Home & Garden Uses
Lemon balm is great for crafting if you want to get that lemony scent. I like to use it in potpourri, incense, bouquets, herbal sachets and it presses really nicely for decorating books, photo albums or for framing and displaying.
In ancient Greece, bee keepers would add sprigs of lemon balm to the hives and plant lemon balm around the hives to attract bees and bring them back home. So if you are into bee keeping or need more bees to come to your garden, plant lemon balm liberally.
Lemon Balm Sun Tea
In the morning, fill a jar about ¼ of the way up with lemon balm leaves and blossoms. You may also include lemon juice and rind or mint leaves if you like. You can also add a handful of stevia leaves if you grow them to naturally sweeten your tea.
Fill the jar with water and let it sit in the sun all day.
Fill glasses with ice and pour out some tea for dinner, or after dinner, for a soothing beverage. Add honey to taste if desired.
Lemon Balm Sun Tea
Lemon Balm - Melissa Officinalis
Medicinal Uses of Lemon Balm
*IMPORTANT MESSAGE TO READ: DO NOT take the following as medical advice. I am simply providing information about how herbs have been used medicinally, both in ancient and modern times, for those interested in herbalism. I may even relay my own experiences but I DO NOT RECOMMEND that YOU use any herbal remedies without first consulting a qualified professional. Please remember that even common culinary herbs can be dangerous when taken in quantities that exceed normal food seasoning.
Warnings: It's fairly uncommon but some side effects from taking lemon balm may include nausea and vomiting, wheezing, dizzy spells or abdominal pain. If you have any adverse effects, stop using lemon balm.
Pregnant and breast-feeding women are discouraged from using lemon balm simply because effects on pregnancy and nursing are not yet known; consult with a qualified herbalist.
Lemon balm may interact with some sedatives, mainly those used during and after surgery, increasing drowsiness. Avoid using lemon balm at least 2 weeks before surgery and talk to your doctor before resuming use after surgery. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, Lemon balm may also interact with thyroid medications and HIV medications so speak to your doctor or pharmacist.
The Gift of Lemon Balm
According to WebMD, Lemon balm is considered largely safe to consume and 'possibly safe' to use medicinally. The effects of long-term medicinal use are not known, but use of up to 4 months has shown few to no adverse effects, and even children have been shown to use it with no serious effects.
Lemon balm has long been used as a tea to sooth fevers, colds, flu and upset stomach. It’s been used to treat indigestion and dyspepsia, though it's often been combined with other plants like peppermint and licorice.
If you need to relax and de-stress, combine lemon balm with another herbal calmative, such as chamomile or valerian root, and make a tea to drink before bed. It’s known to work well on children and adults alike. Lemon balm doesn't work as well on its own as a calmative but it does seem to boost the effects of calmatives (which might explain why it interacts with sedatives). These concoctions have been shown as beneficial for people with insomnia, as studies suggest it may help you sleep better, longer.
Some studies show that lemon balm reduces stress and when combined with Valerian it may help lessen anxiety in a low dose-- higher doses may increase anxiety on the other hand. These studies were performed using plant extracts or dried, ground leaves in pill form; tea is milder so taking a cup of tea should pose no problem.
If a cup of tea is not your cup of tea, you can make a tincture of lemon balm and use it as a tonic.
Lemon balm is also suspected of improving the mind and the ability to focus. Currently studies are being done and there is hope that lemon balm may be effective in treating Alzheimer’s disease.
How to Make a Lemon Balm Tincture
'It is of so great virtue that though it be but tied to his sword that hath given the wound it stauncheth the blood.' – Pliny the Elder
I wouldn’t test Pliny’s claim with a sword, but lemon balm was used in ancient times for a lot of different kinds of wounds, including surgical—leaves were steeped in wine and then lain across the incision to help it heal.
Lemon balm ointments and creams have been used to treat cold sores and herpes simplex virus. It’s also been used to treat open sores and insect bites. You can use a lemon balm poultice for wounds (and drink tea as well to help you sweat out the toxins).
Lemon balm is great for uses in aromatherapy. Breathe in a lemon balm infusion mixed with eucalyptus if you have a cold or flu; the lemon balm will relax and cheer you up, while the eucalyptus will open the airways.
If depressed and tired, simply rub some fresh leaves in your hands and inhale. Make an oil infusion and anoint yourself or massage yourself with it. Make a lemon balm tea and wash your face with it.
For Those Who Don't Garden:
Tell Us About You!
Have you ever tried using lemon balm medicinally?
The origins of lemon balm are rooted in ancient Turkey, then known as Ephesus. The Ephesians held the honey bee as sacred, and the hive was the model for society. The Goddess was the Queen Bee and the people were her 'hive' who served her. The word for bee was Melissa, and the priestesses of the Goddess were the Melissai. These beliefs spread into what is now modern-day Greece. People who lived a righteous life were called Melissae. In the temples of Goddesses like Artemis, Demeter and Persephone, lemon balm was sacred.
Lemon balm was considered a valuable and virtuous plant for it's ability to attract bees and it's healing properties. In Rome, Emperor Charlemagne ordered that all monasteries plant lemon balm. Wash with a blessed lemon balm infusion to help promote good health and vitality. You can also use lemon balm in healing incenses, charm bags, herbal sachets and spells.
In ancient Greece and Rome, lemon balm was associated with wealth due to its connection with honey bees.
Lemon balm strewn about the floor was believed in the Middle Ages to bring good will and cheer into a room and banish depression and sadness.
Lemon balm makes a prime love potion— add lemon balm to wine and let it sit for several hours, then strain it and serve it to the one with whom you are smitten. Shakespeare wrote about lemon balm in some of his plays, saying he believed it promoted sympathy between lovers.
Just carrying lemon balm is believed to attract love—a great little charm is to put lemon balm leaves into a small folded foil pouch. Wear it in your shirt pocket or slip it under your bra strap to attract love.
As you can see, lemon balm is one of those great plants that can really be worthy of space even in the smallest of herb gardens-- there's so much it can do and it's just so pleasant to be around this plant. Grow it and use it in good health.
Ancient Bee Goddess Plaques
Resources on Lemon Balm (Melissa Officinalis)
Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs - Scott Cunningham
A Kid's Herb Book for Children of All Ages - Lesley Tierra, L.Ac., AHG
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© 2014 Mackenzie Sage Wright