Grow, Harvest and Use Lemon Balm

Learn about lemon balm’s impressive array of health benefits, and how you can grow, harvest and use it in your home.

| July/August 2015

  • A member of the mint family, lemon balm is a hardy grower indoors or out.
    Photo by Fotolia
  • Soothing lemon balm has been used as a natural sedative throughout the ages.
    Photo by iStock

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).

Recipes for Using Lemon Balm

Immune-Boosting Lemon Balm Tincture
Herb-Infused Vinegar Recipe: Lemon Balm

Growing Lemon Balm

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.

Harvesting and Using Lemon Balm

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).

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