Learn about lemon balm’s impressive array of health benefits, and how you can grow, harvest and use it in your home.
Lemon balm, or Melissa as it’s also known, has a long history of use supporting human health and well-being. As far back as the Middle Ages, lemon balm was used to improve sleep, reduce anxiety and stress, and relieve pain. Prior to that time, lemon balm was steeped in wine and drunk to treat venomous bites and stings, to heal wounds, and to “lift the spirits.” Along with valerian, soothing lemon balm has been used over the ages as a natural sedative. Nowadays, many gardeners rub lemon balm on their hands and skin to keep mosquitoes at bay (first do a patch test on your inner wrist and wait 24 to 48 hours to ensure you’re not allergic).
A member of the mint family, lemon balm shares mint’s tendency to spread quickly and easily, although lemon balm is less aggressive. It’s usually 2 to 3 feet tall, but lemon balm can grow up to 5 feet in some cases. It’s easily reined in through pruning to encourage a thicker, less unruly shape. It can be grown indoors in a large pot, particularly if it’s regularly trimmed through harvesting. While many people suggest neutral (7.0 pH) soil, in my experience lemon balm is much hardier than suggested. Living in a semi-arid desert climate with hot summers and little moisture, I find that my lemon balm plant still thrives. It grows best, however, when watered weekly and in a location that is primarily sunny but also gets some shade in the afternoon. Planting lemon balm near squash plants helps ensure sufficient pollination for the squashes, too. It’s easy to grow from seed or from a shoot of an existing plant placed in a glass of water, which should be changed daily. Once the plant has started to root, it can be planted in soil.
Lemon balm’s scientific name, Melissa officinalis, is derived from the Greek Melissa, which means “bee.” Indeed, bees love this fragrant plant with silvery green, lemon-scented foliage. Considering diminishing bee populations, which have been significantly impacted by pesticides and other environmental factors over the years, lemon balm is a great plant to grow organically in your garden to assist in restoring bees’ numbers.
You can harvest the leaves and stems at any time after the plant has started growing, although I suggest waiting until it has at least a few stems. The leaves are lovely when minced and added to green salads, fruit salads or your favorite salsa. Because of the lemony scent, the leaves make a great addition to seafood and poultry dishes.
The leaves and stems can also be used to make a mellow, relaxing tea by adding about 1 teaspoon of dried or 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon balm per cup of water and letting steep for at least 10 minutes. Dry the lemon balm by cutting about two-thirds of the way down the stem and hanging upside down in small bunches (up to about 1 inch in diameter at the base).
Relax and Calm Anxiety: Lemon balm is best known for its treatment of anxiety and as a natural relaxation aid. A study in the journal Phytotherapy Research found that this well-known use is based in science. The researchers found that lemon balm did indeed have anti-anxiety effects, particularly when combined with valerian. This herb combination is also helpful for children suffering from restlessness, according to the journal Phytomedicine.
Inhibit the Herpes Virus: In a study published in the journal Natural Product Research, scientists found that lemon balm was highly effective against the herpes simplex virus. Viruses must multiply in the body to survive, yet studies show lemon balm inhibits the ability of the herpes simplex virus by up to 60 percent. The scientists concluded that their research supports the use of lemon balm in the treatment of herpes simplex lesions. Other studies show the effectiveness of lemon balm ointment applied to herpes lesions and lip sores.
Inhibit the HIV Virus: A study reported in the medical journal Retrovirology found that lemon balm showed antiviral activity against the HIV virus. Scientists reported that lemon balm quickly and effectively slowed the entry of the virus into the body’s cells.
Boost Immunity Against Cancer: In a new study published in the journal Pharmaceutical Biology, lemon balm demonstrated significant effectiveness at inhibiting cancerous tumors in animals. After assessing levels of various immune system compounds, the scientists concluded that lemon balm appears to work against cancer by bolstering the body’s immune response.
Eliminate Headaches: Norman G. Bissett, professor of pharmacy at King’s College at the University of London and author of Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals, recommends using lemon balm tea to treat headaches. To make the headache-busting tea, steep 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried lemon balm per cup of boiled water. Let steep until cool.
Manage Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: According to James Duke, botanist and author of The Green Pharmacy, lemon balm tea is a helpful treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome. He recommends making the tea with 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried lemon balm per cup of boiled water and drinking one or two cups three times daily.
Reduce Insomnia: In a study of people with minor sleep problems, lemon balm combined with valerian was found to improve sleep quality in 81 percent of the participants.
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