For gardeners who aren’t afraid of its wandering ways, lemon balm offers a rich history of medicinal use, a wealth of culinary options, and a welcome mat for bumblebees.
Five years ago, my husband and I bought our first home in Boulder, Colorado, from a Master Gardener who had tended its grounds for some thirty years. A renter with little time to garden had lived there for the past two years, and the yard was a disaster. Armed with the barest knowledge of gardening but a lot of determination, I set out to dig the front yard, once a terraced and Xeriscaped masterpiece (or so my new neighbors told me), out from under the layers of leaves and weeds.
Neighbors often stopped by to watch the progress, and some went home happily bearing divisions of the yarrow, tarragon, lavender, and costmary that I was uncovering. But when I tried to give away starts of the huge patch of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) thriving in the dappled shade of the daunting silver maple, I found no takers.
“Lemon balm,” they would say, scornfully. “You put it in, you’ll never get rid of it.”
“But smell,” I would urge, crinkling the heart-shaped, downy leaves so that their citrusy, slightly minty, honeyed fragrance wafted sweetly into the air. “How could you ever have too much of this stuff?”
Still no takers. Never mind that its tiny, nectar-laden flowers are a magnet for bees (lemon balm’s generic name, Melissa, is Greek for “bee”) or that it possesses the rare ability to thrive in dry shade. Apparently, lemon balm has developed a bad reputation, largely for those same reasons. (An Internet search turned up several references to the plant’s seeming desire to “take over the Northwest.”)
One hardy perennial
I’ll admit that after two years of neglect, my own lemon balm was a bit rangy and weedy looking. And I’m pretty certain that my predecessor had not planned for such a large patch of the clump-forming perennial (which was managing to hold its own against the mint) when laying out her garden. Like any child worth her salt, lemon balm will spread its wings when left unchecked. Self-seeding and spreading roots can double the size of a patch in a year. Still, with a bit of attention, lemon balm can be shaped into an attractive garden element, its medium green leaves and bushy, mounding habit contrasting handsomely with darker, deeper green foliage. Golden-leaved cultivars illuminate shady spots.
Should you actually want to increase your stock of this herb, just dig chunks of the younger, outer part of the patch in early spring when new growth first appears, plant them 2 feet apart in prepared soil, and stand back: the new plants will quickly fill in the empty spaces. Dig out and compost the remaining woody center of the patch.
The species also is easily grown from seed. Simply press seeds into the soil and keep the seedbed moist until seedlings appear. (To maintain their characteristics, cultivars must be propagated by division or cuttings.)
Lemon balm likes well-drained soil and some sunlight. Here in Colorado, full sun may turn its leaves yellow and harsh-scented and cause it to go to seed quickly. Resistant to most pests—it’s said to repel insects when rubbed on the skin or thrown into a bonfire—lemon balm is susceptible to powdery mildew, a fairly benign fungal disease that rarely kills the plant. There is no treatment for powdery mildew; cut off and discard mildewy stems. New growth should be green and healthy. To prevent mildew, choose a site with good air circulation, leave plenty of room between plants, and try spraying with baking soda solution.
A rich history
As it appeared that lemon balm had become a part of my new gardening life (a big part), I set out to learn more about the vigorous, sprawly herb. I found a rich history of cultural, medicinal, and culinary use, and an even greater respect for the sweet balm.
Cultivated for more than 2,000 years, M. officinalis is thought to have originated in the Middle East and then spread to the Mediterranean. The Greeks used it to honor the goddess Diana. The ancient Romans introduced it to much of Europe, and medieval maidens carried it as a charm to bring good luck in love. In the “language of flowers,” a system of symbols used to transmit messages between lovers during the Victorian era, it signified sympathy. The Pilgrims brought lemon balm with them to the New World and used it in potpourris and teas. Thomas Jefferson included it in the gardens at Monticello.
But it is the herb’s medicinal qualities that have earned it the most respect throughout the ages. Tenth-century Arab healers declared lemon balm good for heart disorders and also prescribed it to lift patients’ spirits. Llewelyn, the thirteenth-century prince of Glamorgan, drank lemon balm tea every morning and lived to the ripe age of 108, justifying the herb’s later description as an “elixir of life.”
The London Dispensary, published in 1696, suggested that “an essence of Balm, given in Canary wine, every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature and prevent baldness,” while the British apothecary Nicholas Culpeper advised, “Let a syrup made with the juice of it and sugar be kept in every gentlewoman’s house to relieve the weak stomachs and sick bodies of their poor and sickly neighbours.” Seventeenth-century Carmelite nuns offered Eau de Melisse des Carmes, an elixir made from lemon balm, lemon peel, nutmeg, coriander, and angelica root steeped in wine that was deemed useful against nervous headache and neuralgia.
Infusions of fresh lemon balm leaves have been used to induce perspiration in feverish patients and to relieve respiratory disorders and headaches. Studies have shown that the herb has a sedative effect on laboratory mice, and its volatile oil is antiviral. Recent research has investigated the effects of some of its constituents on HIV and tumor growth. The leaves have been used externally to soothe insect bites, gout, and sores including those of herpes. Because of its astringency, lemon balm is an ingredient of facials to treat acne and of rinses for greasy hair. Aromatherapists recommend lemon balm to counter depression, relax, and rejuvenate.
Fresh is best
In my own lemon balm patch, I occasionally find a neighbor foraging for a sprig to tuck into a glass of iced tea. Fresh lemon balm leaves add a delicate zing not only to tea but also to green and fruit salads, poultry, stewed fruits, and fruit drinks. They can be chopped and stirred into marinades for fish and vegetables. Paired with tarragon, lemon balm sprigs are a delightful addition to vinegar; steeped in hot cream or milk, they quietly flavor desserts. A handful of fresh lemon balm can be used as a substitute in any recipe that calls for lemon zest, and it’s always a nice addition to dishes that call for lemon juice, as well.
Given lemon balm’s versatility in the kitchen, I considered harvesting a large batch and drying it for year-round use until I discovered that the leaves lose their intense flavor and fragrance when they’re dried or cooked. On top of that, they don’t dry well; they tend to turn black if they’re not dried quickly. To maintain the most flavor, cut the stalks to within 4 inches of the ground just as the tubular yellowish or white flowers begin to open. Remove the leaves from the stems and dry both on a screen in hot, dry shade. To make a mild tea, first warm a teapot, pour 2 cups of boiling water over a handful of leaves and stems, then steep, covered, for 15 minutes.
On a hot summer day, I often pour myself a glass of chilled lemon balm tea and stir in a healthy dose of sugar and lemon. As I sit on my front porch, sipping this gift from my garden while watching the flowering balm welcome the bees, I am grateful to the gardener who came before me, one who wasn’t afraid of a little wandering lemon.
Robyn Griggs Lawrence is the editor of The Herb Companion. This summer she is planting a big culinary garden in her backyard.