Lemon Balm (melissa officinalis)

This powerfully lemon-scented perennial in the mint family bears toothed, oval leaves and tiny white flowers that are highly attractive to honeybees. (Melissa is the Greek word for honeybee.) At one time, people rubbed beehives with lemon balm to encourage the bees’ productiveness. The chemical composition of lemon balm oil is very similar to a pheromone found in worker bees; this pheromone helps them locate their colony and sources of nectar.

Native to southern Europe and western Asia, lemon balm has been grown for more than 2,000 years. It has a long history of use in traditional medicine, especially as a sedative and antispasmodic. In potpourris and perfumes, it adds a fresh, lemony scent.

Lemon Balm

Plant profile

Common Name: Lemon Balm

Description: Loosely branched perennial up to 2 feet tall; opposite toothed leaves on square stems; clusters of tiny white flowers, highly attractive to bees; lemon scented

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Summer to fall

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to the mountains of southern Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia, widely naturalized

Culinary use

The fresh leaves impart a citrusy flavor to salads, soups, sauces, vinegars, and fish dishes, as well as hot and cold teas. Try adding the chopped fresh leaves to a pound cake. Or stuff sprigs into poultry or whole fish before cooking.

Medicinal use

Lemon balm has been used since ancient times to lift mood and reduce fever; the Greek physician Dioscorides (ca. 40–90 CE) prescribed it in the 1st century. In the Middle Ages, people used the herb to reduce stress and anxiety, promote restful sleep, improve appetite, lower fever, and ease the pain and discomfort of indigestion. Lemon balm is one of the ingredients in Bénédictine and Chartreuse, healing liqueurs developed by monks hundreds of years ago. The 16th-century physician Paracelsus (1493–1541) also added this herb to his famous elixir that promoted revitalization.

In modern aromatherapy, herbalists recommend essential oil of lemon balm to promote relaxation and rejuvenation, especially in cases of depression and nervous tension. The herb is believed to have carminative, nervine, antidepressant, sedative, and diaphoretic properties. It contains caffeic and rosmarinic acids, which offer antiviral effects against herpes simplex 1 and 2. In Europe, lemon balm ointment is widely used to treat herpes blisters. Due to its pleasant flavor and soothing nature, this herb is especially suitable for treating children.

To make a tea, pour 1 cup of boiling water over five or six fresh leaves or 1 teaspoon of dried leaves. Steep for 5 minutes. Strain and sweeten, if desired. Drink several times per day.

How to grow it

Lemon balm thrives in moist, well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. Harvest the leaves before the plant flowers, beginning in early summer. Lemon balm is a prolific self-sower; pinch off blooms to discourage its spread. Propagate by seed, cuttings, and root division.