Lemon Balm Recipes:
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), celebrated for its wide range
of uses in the garden, kitchen and medicine cabinet, is Herb of the Year for 2007. This refreshingly humble member of the mint family is a hip and helpful herb.
Perhaps previously overlooked due to its aggressive tendencies, lemon balm is currently enjoying a revival by both herbalists and chefs alike, and its calming sensibilities are endearing themselves to our stressed-out, over-taxed bodies and minds. Indeed, as a healthy herbal tea, there can be no better tonic for uplifting spirits and relieving tension.
Aromatherapists use the essential oil to relieve anxiety, shock, depression and nightmares. Due to its antispasmodic characteristics, it is used for stress-related digestive, menstrual and respiratory problems. When combined with German chamomile, lemon balm is an effective treatment for eczema and allergies.
The mildly sedative tea eases headaches, indigestion and nausea and causes a slight dilation of the blood vessels, thus helping to lower blood pressure. When blended with other tea herbs, lemon balm adds a fresh, cheery note.
A History of Healing
Native to the Mediterranean region, lemon balm has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years. Its genus name, Melissa, is derived from the Greek word for bee; ancient Greek author Pliny the Elder and 16th-century herbalist John Gerard both observed that lemon balm is useful in attracting and keeping bees. Officinalis refers to its place in the official apothecary. The common name ‘‘balm’’ is shortened from ‘‘balsam.’’
Ancient and more modern herbalists alike were well aware of the plant’s healing and restorative powers. Gerard and the ancient Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist Dioscorides both used the leaves steeped in wine to treat snakebites and scorpion stings. Maud Grieve gave a nod of scientific proof to those ancient uses in her book A Modern Herbal. She wrote in 1931, “It is now recognized as a scientific fact that the balsamic oils of aromatic plants make excellent surgical dressings: they give off ozone and thus exercise anti-putrescent effects. Being chemical hydrocarbons, they contain so little oxygen that in wounds dressed with the fixed balsamic herbal oils, the atomic germs of disease are starved out, and the resinous parts of these balsamic oils, as they dry upon the sore or wound, seal it up and effectually exclude all noxious air.”
Lemon balm’s popularity continued throughout the centuries, and it was enjoyed as a tea to combat mental confusion and as an elixir thought to extend lifespan. So widespread was lemon balm’s reputation for promoting longevity and dispelling melancholy that by the 17th century, French Carmelite nuns were dispensing their Carmelite Water to a faithful following. The lemon-balm infused “miracle water” was thought to improve memory and vision and reduce rheumatic pain, fever, melancholy and congestion.
Introduced into Great Britain by the Romans, lemon balm is now found in both England and North America, brought by colonialists who had come to rely on it for teas and flavoring. American Shakers grew lemon balm as a relief from mild fevers. One of the herbs grown in Thomas Jefferson’s gardens, lemon balm was well established as an important culinary herb, one especially suited to syrups and beverages.
Controlled Cultivation: Selecting the Herb of the Year
Sun-loving and hardy, once planted, lemon balm can take over an herb bed if you let it, jumping about seemingly at will, so containers are one way of controlling it. If you plant it in the garden, keep your eye on it, harvest regularly, remove flowers before they spread their seed and take a shovel to the edges to make sure it doesn’t get out of bounds. The plant grows 2 feet high, bearing small, white, nondescript flowers in mid- to late summer. The square and branching stems support broadly ovate or heart-shaped leaves with scalloped edges. The whole plant smells delightfully lemony, with the scent being at its best when the tiny flowers begin to open.
Lemon balm has few known varieties, among them golden balm (M.o. ‘Aurea’), lime balm (M.o.‘Lime’), M.o. ‘Citronella’, and M.o. ‘Lemonella’, a more aromatic variety similar to ‘Citronella’.
Savor the Lemon Flavor
Light and fresh, lemon balm adds a splash of citrus and mint undertones to both savory and sweet dishes. Use the young tops of the plant for cooking and teas because the large, older leaves tend to have a soapy, musty flavor. It is best used fresh but can be dried quickly and stored carefully for use in teas and herb blends; on drying it will lose some of the nuance of its flavor.
Gather and use generous amounts of fresh lemon balm leaves and add after cooking whenever possible to maintain the delicate aroma. Cooking lemon balm too long will dissipate its flavor.
Photographer, writer, lecturer and culinary herbalist Pat Crocker loves lemon: As a child, Pat could eat fresh lemons as one might eat an orange. At her home in Neustadt, Ontario, Canada, she puts her ‘pucker power’ to work developing new ways to use the clean citrus flavor of lemon balm in recipes. Her newest book, The Vegetarian Cook’s Bible, will be available later this year. For more information about her, visit www.HerbCompanion.com/contributors.