This year’s herbal superstar probably is best
known for its delightful scent: a harbinger of spring and a true
summer essence, lemon balm’s fragrance is a pleasant mingling of
lemon and sweet honey. But a sweet perfume is not the only
admirable trait possessed by this 2,000-year-old beauty. The
plant’s botanical name, Melissa officinalis, derived from the Greek
word for “bee,” belies its extreme attractiveness to the bumbling
little workers. The balm patch is abuzz with activity in the summer
when tiny white flowers appear on this easy-to-grow perennial
plant. English herbalist John Parkinson (1567 to 1650) was a
botanist and gardener before he became the royal apothecary to King
James I. He described lemon balm, “Of a sweet smell, coming neerest
to a Citron or Lemmon” and as a remedy for bee stings.
Lemon balm is the International Herb Association’s 2007 Herb of
the Year. Every year since 1995, the International Herb Association
(IHA) has chosen an Herb of the Year to highlight. Longstanding IHA
member Chuck Voigt, who has been involved in the selection process
for many years, explains, “The Horticultural Committee evaluates
possible choices based on their being outstanding in at least two
of the three major categories: medicinal, culinary or decorative.”
The Herb Society of America, as well as many other organizations,
supports the Herb of the Year selection, and members of these
groups work throughout the year to educate member and the public
about these herbs.
A History of Healing
Native to southern Europe, Asia and North Africa, lemon balm
always has been thought to enhance longevity. Paracelsus, a Swiss
physician of the early 1500s, made an elixir he claimed would
revitalize the strength of man and almost make him immortal.
It also is thought to enhance thinking. Well-known English
herbalist John Evelyn (1620-1706) stated, “Balm is sovereign for
the brain, strengthening the memory and powerfully chasing away
melancholy.” Herbalists recommended lemon balm wine or tea to
scholars to sharpen memory and clear the head; interestingly, it
also was prescribed to insomniacs for its alleged sleep-inducing
properties. Emperor Charles V used it in his bath “to refresh and
preserve his intellect.”
Balm also has a history of healing skin wounds and has been used
for centuries to reduce fever. In ancient Greece and Rome, healers
used balm wine orally and topically as a surgical dressing and to
treat venomous bites and stings, as described in the writings of
Dioscorides and Pliny the Elder.
When combined with nutmeg, lemon peel, cinnamon and cloves and
infused in alcohol, balm’s leaves become the famous Eau de Carmes,
an aromatic cordial made by the Carmelite nuns in the 17th century
to relieve headaches. It is manufactured in Germany today as
Lemon Balm for Sleep, Stomachs and More
Lemon balm is a calming herb that has antioxidant, antispasmodic
and antiviral properties. It also has carminative properties (helps
relieve intestinal gas); diaphoretic effects (increases sweating);
and is a febrifuge (fever reducer) and stomach tonic. It seems to
have an overall tonic effect on the body, and an infusion of the
leaves is useful for mild depression; headache; as a digestive aid
for gas, bloating and an upset stomach; to reduce fevers; to help
calm nerves and relieve anxiety and stress; and to promote
Fresh lemon balm is the best-tasting and most effective form of
the medicine. Dried lemon balm will work, too, but much of the
delightful fragrance of the fresh herb is lost when dried. I often
prepare fresh lemon balm tinctures, distillates, vinegars and
syrups to use during the winter months.
The German Commission E has approved lemon balm for nervous
sleeping disorders and functional gastrointestinal complaints.
Recently, studies have shown that an ointment made from lemon balm
is effective in treating herpes simplex (cold sores). Although
these creams are not yet available in the United States, you can
make your own lemon balm infusion to take internally and apply
externally to treat cold sores. Lemon balm tinctures also are
There have been no reported side effects or toxic symptoms from
the use of lemon balm–it is among the safest herbs available.
However, to be on the safe side, do not take the herb in large
quantities if you are pregnant or nursing. If you take thyroid
medication or sedatives, check with your health-care practitioner
before using lemon balm. In animal studies, the herb produced
pressure inside the eye, so it is not recommended for people who
Lemon Balm: A Sweet Kitchen Companion
In the kitchen, lemon balm contributes a subtly sweet grassy
flavor and a hint of lemon to a variety of foods and drinks. I use
lemon balm most often as a fresh leaf tea or combined with green or
black tea. I almost always put a handful of leaves into the
pitchers of iced tea I make in the spring and summer months,
finding that it enlivens each glass. I make lemon balm syrup fairly
often and use it with an equal amount of sparkling water as a
natural soda. I also use the syrup in other beverages and punches,
over fresh fruit, and as a glaze on muffins, cakes and scones.
Lemon balm goes well with light foods, such as fruits or green
salads, summer vegetables, grains, and baked fish or chicken, and
it is a lovely addition to sorbets, ice creams, puddings and
macerated fruits. When cooking with lemon balm, add the leaves very
near the end of cooking, as heat dissipates the plant’s volatile
oils. Its fragrance keeps fairly well in baked goods because
batters and doughs capture its essence. Following are some
delicious recipes featuring lemon balm.
LEMON BALM INFUSION
MAKES ABOUT 1 QUART OF INFUSION; FILLS 2 OR 3 ICE CUBE
If you are making a simple cup of tea, use 1 or 2 cups water. I
use a handful of lemon balm leaves per 1 cup of water. Steep for
just 5 minutes, strain and drink hot. Sweeten with honey, if
desired. I find this tea soothing to the digestive tract about an
hour after dinner, and sometimes I will have a cup before bedtime
You can drink infusions hot, like tea, or chill them and serve
like iced tea or mixed with other drinks. Or, make them into ice
cubes to flavor iced tea, lemonade and fruit juices.
1 quart water
2 generous cups fresh lemon balm leaves
Bring water to a boil in a nonreactive saucepan. Add lemon balm
and cover. Remove from heat and steep for about 30 minutes, or
until infusion is room temperature.
Strain herbs; pour infusion into a glass jar or pitcher and
refrigerate, or pour infusion into ice cube trays and freeze. Once
frozen, pop cubes into freezer bags and label.
THREE SEED COOKIES WITH LEMON HERBS
MAKES ABOUT 7 DOZEN COOKIES
I first created this recipe using orange mint and orange zest.
It is equally delicious with lemon balm and lemon zest. These
good-for-you cookies are full of flavor; the recipe can be halved
easily, but I make a big batch and freeze some to have on hand.
1½ cups unsalted butter (3 sticks), softened
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs
½ teaspoon lemon oil, optional
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoons lemon zest
½ cup packed lemon balm leaves
2 cups unbleached flour
1 cup white or whole-wheat pastry flour
¾ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons baking soda
½ cup rolled oats
¼ cup poppy seeds
¼ cup sesame seeds
¼ cup flaxseeds
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter baking sheets.
In a bowl, food processor or mixer, beat butter with sugars
until blended and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add lemon
oil, vanilla, zest and balm and blend well.
In a separate mixing bowl, combine flours, salt, baking soda,
oats and seeds. Add dry ingredients to wet mixture and blend
Drop dough by rounded teaspoonsful onto baking sheets. Bake
until golden brown on the edges, about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove
from baking sheets and let cool on baking racks. Store cookies in a
tightly covered container.
LEMON BALM SYRUP
MAKES ABOUT 2 CUPS
Herb syrups are wonderful flavor essences you can use in place
of the liquid in cakes, pie fillings and sorbets. They are good on
fruits and in beverages.
1½ cups water
1½ cups sugar
8 to 10 sprigs lemon balm, or large handful leaves
Combine water and sugar in a saucepan; add herbs, bruising
leaves against side of pan with a spoon. Bring to a boil over
moderate heat. Cover, remove from heat and let syrup stand at least
Remove leaves and squeeze into syrup to extract flavor. Discard
leaves. Pour syrup into a clean bottle or jar and label.
Syrup will keep in the refrigerator for about four weeks. If you
want to keep syrup longer, pour it into jars or bottles (leaving at
least an inch of headspace) with a lid or cap, label and freeze for
up to one year. Thaw the night before using, or place the bottle in
a bowl of warm (not hot) water to thaw more quickly, use what you
need, and refreeze right away.
MAKES 1 SERVING
Because lemon balm has soothing properties, a tea of it is a
relaxing beverage before bed. Drinking warm milk before bed is also
a recommended practice for a good night’s sleep. Here, I’ve
combined the two traditions for a delicious bedtime beverage.
6 to 8 sprigs fresh lemon balm, 2 to 3 inches long
1 cup milk
About 1 teaspoon maple syrup
Rinse balm leaves, shake off excess water, and scrunch up to
bruise leaves. Put balm in a small nonreactive saucepan and pour
milk over it. Place over medium heat, and stir, bruising balm
against side of pan with back of a spoon. Add maple syrup and stir
to dissolve. Bring milk just barely to a simmer, turn off heat, and
cover. Let sit for 5 minutes.
Strain leaves from milk into a mug and squeeze to release
essence. Inhale. Drink slowly.
Susan Belsinger is a culinary herbalist and a frequent
contributor to Herbs for Health’s sister publication, The Herb
Companion. Susan delights in the intricately veined bright green
leaves, the sweet lemony fragrance and the honeysweet lemon taste
of lemon balm.
MISO SOUP WITH GARLIC, GINGER AND LEMON BALM
This simple, flavorful soup is so easy and is the perfect quick
fix for when you need a pick-me-up or something warming and
nourishing. It is great to drink when you have a cold or flu.
3 cups water
1-inch piece fresh gingerroot
3 large cloves garlic, sliced thin lengthwise
1 tablespoon mellow white or yellow miso
5 or 6 sprigs lemon balm, about 4 inches long
Lemon balm leaves for garnish
Heat water over medium heat in a small nonreactive saucepan.
Peel gingerroot and slice into coins (crosswise in thin slices).
Add gingerroot and garlic to saucepan. When water boils, reduce
heat and cook at a bare simmer, covered, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove
Put miso in a small bowl; add about 1/4 cup of the hot decoction
and stir with a fork until miso is dissolved. Add dissolved miso to
the saucepan along with lemon balm and use the back of a spoon to
bruise balm leaves against side of pan. Cover and let sit for about
With a spoon, press balm sprigs against side of the pan to
release essence, and remove them. Use a slotted spoon to remove
ginger slices. I leave the garlic slices in the broth–they are the
prize at the bottom of the bowl. Serve soup garnished with a few
fresh lemon balm leaves.