There Goes the Neighborhood: Lemon Balm

All you need to know about Lemon Balm

| June/July 1999

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.”)

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