Lemon Balm HERB OF THE YEAR 2007

Learn how to grow and use this sweet-smelling herb; plus great recipes.

| January/February 2007

  • Lemon balm is a wonderful addition to any garden. It grows easily from seeds and rooted cuttings, or by root division.

  • Lemon Balm Infusion is a soothing drink before bedtime and also makes a delicious iced tea.

  • photos by Susan Belsinger

  • Dianne Maire

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 Klosterfrau Melissengeist.

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