Herb to Know: Lemon Balm

| August/September 1995

• Melissa officinalis
(Muh-LISS-uh uh-fiss-i-NAL-iss)
• Family Lamiaceae (Labiatae)
• Hardy perennial

Lemon balm is a mint family member native to southern Europe. This perennial herb grows practically anywhere, but it lacks the tendency of true mints to spread where they’re not wanted. With occasional grooming to curb sprawling stems, lemon balm can be an attractive addition to the herb garden.

One- to 2-foot-tall square stems bear inch-long, opposite, broadly triangular, scalloped, glossy, netted dark green leaves. Minute short hairs dot the surface of the leaves, which—when bruised —give off a scent that has been variously described as lemon-and-mint and lemon-and-honey. Small, inconspicuous whit­ish or yellow flowers in clusters in the leaf axils bloom all summer.

Cultivars with golden and yellow-and-green-variegated leaves are available, but the leaves tend to turn green in hot weather. Because the name Aurea has been applied to both forms, check catalog descriptions or actual plants to ensure that you get the one you want. Lime is a green-leaved cultivar with a lime flavor.

The generic name Melissa is Greek for “bee”. Bees are strongly attracted to lemon balm for its nectar. Beekeepers used to rub hives with the leaves to attract bees to them. Officinalis is Latin for “of the (druggist’s) storeroom”, indicating the herb’s history of medicinal use. The common name “balm” is derived from “balsam”; both words refer to aromatic, healing plant resins or oils.

 Lemon Balm Recipe: Lemon Balm and Chive Butter 

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