• Melissa officinalis
• (Muh-LISS-uh uh-fiss-i-NAL-iss)
• Family Lamiaceae (Labiatae)
• Hardy perennial
Lemon balm is a mint family member native to southern Europe. This perennial herb grows practically anywhere, but it lacks the tendency of true mints to spread where they’re not wanted. With occasional grooming to curb sprawling stems, lemon balm can be an attractive addition to the herb garden.
One- to 2-foot-tall square stems bear inch-long, opposite, broadly triangular, scalloped, glossy, netted dark green leaves. Minute short hairs dot the surface of the leaves, which—when bruised —give off a scent that has been variously described as lemon-and-mint and lemon-and-honey. Small, inconspicuous whitish or yellow flowers in clusters in the leaf axils bloom all summer.
Cultivars with golden and yellow-and-green-variegated leaves are available, but the leaves tend to turn green in hot weather. Because the name Aurea has been applied to both forms, check catalog descriptions or actual plants to ensure that you get the one you want. Lime is a green-leaved cultivar with a lime flavor.
The generic name Melissa is Greek for “bee”. Bees are strongly attracted to lemon balm for its nectar. Beekeepers used to rub hives with the leaves to attract bees to them. Officinalis is Latin for “of the (druggist’s) storeroom”, indicating the herb’s history of medicinal use. The common name “balm” is derived from “balsam”; both words refer to aromatic, healing plant resins or oils.
• Lemon Balm Recipe: Lemon Balm and Chive Butter
Using Lemon Balm
The ancients prescribed lemon balm for everything from scorpion stings to depression. It has been used to treat fever, menstrual cramps, and headache, as well as to strengthen the memory and prevent baldness. The leaves have been poulticed on wounds and insect bites, and a tea of equal parts peppermint and lemon balm is believed to aid digestion and promote sleep. Scientific research has confirmed that hot-water extracts of lemon balm have antiviral, antibacterial, antihistaminic, antispasmodic, and antioxidant activity. Lemon balm is an ingredient of commercial antiviral preparations in Europe.
Fresh lemon balm leaves are much tastier than dried ones. They make a good hot or iced tea, either alone or with other herbs or black tea. (One John Hussey, of Sydenham, who lived to the age of 116, “breakfasted for fifty years on balm tea sweetened with honey”.) The leaves also lend a light lemoniness to salads, mixed fruits, herb butters, fish, poultry, and custard sauces; the addition of citrus or pineapple intensifies the lemon flavor. Add the leaves at the very end of cooking if possible to preserve the most flavor. The flowers make a sweet, lemony last-minute garnish to desserts and fruit salads.
To dry, cut stems just before the plants begin to flower. Handle them carefully, as the leaves turn black when bruised. Dry them on screens in a warm, dark place. Some sources recommend temperatures above 90°F.
Rub fresh leaves on wood furniture to polish it while leaving a lemon scent. Buff with a clean, soft cloth. The dried leaves may be added to potpourri. The oil (sometimes called melissa) is used in perfumes and aromatherapy preparations.
Growing Lemon Balm
Lemon balm is hardy in zones 4 to 10, but it does best in cooler climates. It may not overwinter in warm, humid regions. M. officinalis thrives in full sun in cooler areas; part shade is best in the South, and the golden and variegated cultivars should have part shade in all areas. Lemon balm tolerates a wide range of soils and is drought resistant when established.
M. officinalis is easy to grow from seeds sown either directly in the garden or in pots indoors. Planting indoors makes sense if you want only a few plants. Start seeds indoors about eight weeks before the last spring frost. Fill a container that has drainage holes three-quarters full of moist soilless potting medium. Sow seeds sparingly, press them into the medium, and then cover the pot loosely with plastic. Set it in a warm place out of direct light. Germination takes one to three weeks. Remove the plastic and transfer the pot to a sunny window or under fluorescent lights. Keep the soil just moist. Transplant seedlings to individual pots when they have one set of true leaves. Use half-strength water-soluble fertilizer solution instead of plain water each time you water. A week or two before transplanting them to the garden, gradually harden the plants off by placing the pots outdoors for increasingly longer periods and use plain water, not fertilizer solution, to wet the soil. Set the plants 18 inches apart in the garden, watering them in with full-strength fertilizer solution. The plants won’t look like much the first year but will fill out during the second year.
Pruning keeps the plants neater and bushier and encourages the growth of new foliage, which is more tender and flavorful and, in the variegated and golden-leaved cultivars, more colorful than the old foliage. Save the prunings for cooking or tea.
Plants readily self-seed. Propagate cultivars by dividing plants in spring (which is easiest) or rooting cuttings (if you need a lot of new plants).
Lemon balm may be grown indoors. Give plants fourteen to sixteen hours under fluorescent lights or at least five hours of direct sunlight. Pruning will help to forestall lankiness.
• Companion Plants, 7247 N. Coolville Ridge Rd., Athens, OH 45701. Catalog $2. Plants of Melissa officinalis, variegated lemon balm (M. o. ‘Aurea’), golden lemon balm (M. o. var.); seeds of M. officinalis.
• Rasland Farm, N.C. 82 at U.S. 13, Godwin, NC 28344-9712. Catalog $2.50. Plants of M. officinalis, M. o. ‘Aurea’, M. o. ‘Lime’.