Learn how to grow and use this sweet-smelling herb; plus great recipes.
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.
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 Klosterfrau Melissengeist.
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 sleep.
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 available.
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 have glaucoma.
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.
MAKES ABOUT 1 QUART OF INFUSION; FILLS 2 OR 3 ICE CUBE TRAYS
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 to relax.
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.
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 well.
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.
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 30 minutes.
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.
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 from heat.
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 5 minutes.
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.
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