Melissa Oficinalis: Growing and Using Lemon Balm

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Heidi Cardenas is a freelance writer and gardener in Lake County, Illinois, with a background in human resources. She has written about gardening for various online venues and enjoys The Herb Companion‘s valuable resources.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is one of the first herbs to show up in the chilly, damp spring soil in my yard. Its cheerful green leaves are a welcome sight after months of brown and gray. Lemon balm is a prolific, hardy perennial herb native to the eastern Mediterranean region and western Asia. Melissa is the Greek name for honeybee, a reference to the way it attracts bees. Volunteer and escapee plants show up in every nook and cranny of the yard and garden, begging to be transplanted to a well-tended garden bed or flower border. I am happy to oblige. I would grow a whole field of lemon balm if I could.

Lemon balm is a versatile culinary, medicinal and personal care herb.

How To Use Your Lemon Balm

I love lemon balm. It is such a beautiful, fragrant green herb. It has so many uses as a culinary, medicinal and personal care herb. And it is so prolific that it’s easy to use fresh and dried all year long. A few clipped stems steeped in boiling water with raw sugar or honey and a slice of fresh orange makes a delicious hot or iced beverage. The leaves are tasty additions to summer green salads and fruit salads. Try mixing fresh pineapple chunks, red delicious apple chunks, fresh chopped lemon balm leaves and a light drizzle of orange blossom honey and chill for an hour. Top with chopped walnuts, granola or your favorite bran cereal. Fresh lemon balm leaves are easy to candy, along with rose petals and spearmint sprigs. Just brush with frothed reconstituted egg whites, sprinkle with crystalized sugar and let dry until crispy.

Lemon balm pops up here and there in the yard and garden.
Photos by Heidi Cardenas

Lemon balm has antiviral, antispasmodic and sedative properties, making it a soothing stomach tonic and gentle natural sleep and anti-anxiety aid.The plant leaves and essential oils contain caffeic acid and ferulic acid which provide protection from carcinogens, prevent inflammation, suppress bacteria and fungi and have antioxidant properties. Medicinal uses for lemon balm include teas for stomach aches, digestive and sleep aids, and flu and fever reducer; poultices to relieve boils and skin sores from chicken pox and shingles; and creams and salves for skin conditioners, toning and brightening. It’s easy to turn a bountiful harvest into a supply of capsules containing dried, powdered lemon balm to take for headaches, sleeplessness, anxiety, fever or indigestion.

Fresh lemon balm works wonders in the bath as well, strewn in hot water with rose petals and lavender, or floated in a newly cleaned toilet bowl. A couple of freshly cut sprigs steeped overnight in filtered water makes a refreshing natural hair rinse after shampooing, or a lovely light toilet water sprayed on arms and legs after a shower. Steep it in filtered water and witch hazel for a facial skin toner. Lemon balm leaves make great dream pillow filling, cut fresh and stuffed into clean cheesecloth or muslin tied with silk ribbon to tuck into your pillow case before sleep. Mix them with fresh cut lavender flowers and spearmint leaves for an even more relaxing, dream-friendly sachet.

Lemon balm is incredibly easy to grow in the herb garden, in flower beds and in containers. It starts easily from seed or plant divisions. It is drought tolerant, grows well in most soils, and produces flowers that are sweet smelling and attractive to bees. Plant lemon balm near apple trees and vegetable gardens where pollination is important to attract bees, and near beehives to calm and retain bees. Whether you grow a lot of lemon balm in the garden or just one pot of it on the deck, you will be delighted with this sweet, bountiful herb.  

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