Plant Profile: Lemon Balm
Other common names
Herb, aerial (above ground) parts – leaf, stem, flower
Lemon balm lists among beginner gardener’s choice herbs. It prefers moisture and sunshine but also seems to grow in any type of soil and climate. Characteristically, like its mint family relatives, lemon balm is a perennial with the mint signature square stem. It grows bushy and can reach as tall as 5 feet. Recommendations for lemon balm include confining to a potted plant, for in the ground it will take over in an aggressive weedy way. In my own garden, weeds are a terrible problem, one with which I can’t keep up. I feel bad pulling the plants, but I do and even so they grow more quickly than manageable. If lemon balm grows like a weed, I feel ok with that for I rather it than many others. It soothes my spirit somehow each time I bend to smell. Lemon balm is a self-seeder so to prevent too strong a coverage, avoid it going to seed by clipping regular cuttings for your herbal apothecary. Snip or snap off the stems once the pretty petite yellow or white flowers appear and are still in bloom, before they go to seed. Lovely melissa’s hardy nature combined with a concentrated aroma that contributes freshness with pest and disease resistance formulate sure gardening success.
For large amounts or if no option to grow, lemon balm is unlikely to be found in grocery store produce departments. Because it does grow easily, dried lemon balm is readily available directly from herb suppliers. Dried lemon balm may lose flavor and aroma, but only partially. It does not; however, suffer any medicinal quality. Whenever searching for herb sources, Mountain Rose Herbs proves a reliable beginning place. Here you can purchase dried lemon balm, lemon balm extract and essential oil. Mountain rose also sells products made with lemon balm such as lemon tea blends and lemon balm hydrosol, a spray made from the distillation of plant material in water similar to essential oil but milder. For fresh lemon balm, a local herb farm is ideal but if that is not a reality, Zach Woods Herb Farm in Vermont will ship live plants in the spring and summer as well as fresh herb although there is a ten-pound minimum. Horizon Herbs sells lemon balm seeds and even has a lime balm, which is an interesting subspecies. At Avena Botanicals, lemon balm liquid extract, alcohol free glycerite, and lip balm are lovely offerings. They also sell several calming tea and extract blends incorporating lemon balm. Herbalist and Alchemist, my go to source for herbal tinctures, offers lemon balm extract in several sized bottles as well as lemon balm glycerite. There are also several compound formula extracts that include lemon balm as an ingredient such as Emotional Relief, Clarity Compound, Thyroid Compound, and Kids Tummy Relief glycerite. These are my favorite sources available for online ordering; however, there are others and bigger names like Gaia Herbs, HerbPharm, and Traditional Medicinals that may be more easily available in supplement stores as well as online.
Plant people and herbalists often reference herbs by their Latin names, which like human titles include a first and last name. Because in Latin, as in several other European languages, the order of things comes in reverse of how stated in English, the first name equates to a surname, designation of the group to which a plant belongs. For lemon balm, Melissa is its genus name; related plants will also have this as a first name. The last name is more individual, the species, a way of describing this particular plant. Many herbs have the species name officinalis, indicating that traditionally herbalists and healers have “officially” used it as a remedy. The name Melissa does not sound to my ears like Latin; however, in Greek melissa means bee, which speaks to the pollinator’s love for this plant and the reason this became its genus name. The common name lemon balm is not a direct translation of the Latin. With such a distinguishing lemony citrus smell combined with its early use for preparing fragrant soothing ointments called balm, there really is no other label that would apply. Distinguishing plant characteristics result from many chemical compounds joining together and for lemon balm essential oils predominate. The essential oils citral and citronellal dominate lemon as these are also in lemons mixed with geraniol (rose-scent) and linalool (lavender). This plant is also packed with antioxidant flavonoids such as apigenin, luteolin and quercitin. Other phenolic components, caffeic and rosmarinic acids, provide additional antioxidant power. Nerol, another essential oil, may relieve gas but also stimulates a special attraction for the disappearing honeybees. Nutritionally, fresh lemon balm contains vitamin C and thiamin (vitamin B1) both of which will decrease in the dried leaves. There are two precautions to take with lemon balm. Topically, lemon balm has antiviral activity, but some people can be sensitive to it and develop dermatitis. Always test a small skin area before applying any topical herb. The second caution involves its mild ability to stimulate the thyroid gland. Large doses of lemon balm should not be used for those with hypothyroid conditions and on medications such as synthroid unless under observation by a physician.
In the world of herbs, more often than not palatable taste is a problem. Not so with lemon balm. Its name has special meaning, as the citrus sour slightly bitter resemblance to the lemon fruit is remarkable. But lemon balm in the lamiaceae or mint family has no relation to the lemon tree in the rutaceae or citrus family. The pleasant taste makes lemon balm a go-to herb for tea blend additions and can be used to balance other herbs that do not carry such cordiality.
Smells can be distinctive. Lemon balm’s is an identifier and also a history maker.
In my herbal studies program we studied each of over 300 herbs individually. My teacher expert herbalist, David Winston, disclosed that he keeps a potted lemon balm plant inside during the winter. He described the uplifting feeling it offers whenever he suffers a down spirited day related to the grayness of winter. He immerses his face into the plant and breathes in lemon balm’s magic. He admits the relief is short term, but helpful. I have tried this and am not sure uplifted is the feeling for me, more a moment of peace as I breathe in the soothing scent. Lemon balm’s essential oils help to define and describe its aroma sensation, predominantly lemon with a touch of rose, lavender, and mint. Historically, this favorable aroma designated lemon balm as high demand. Need for fresh pleasant scent in homes, public places, and on people called for creativity. Beginning in monasteries, monks and nuns used lemon balm growing abundantly in their medicinal gardens to create Carmelite water, so called after Carmelite nuns thought to be the originators of this tonic perfume. Lemon balm with small amounts of angelica, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, and cloves infused in wines was valued for its use as cologne. Rosalee de la Forêt is the education director of LearningHerbs.com. Both Rosalee and LearningHerbs.com offer profound opportunities for herbal education. Rosalee is full of recipe ideas that incorporate herbs into cooking. I wish I could be as creative as she is, but I am constantly inspired by her expertise. Here is her recipe for Carmelite water.
Imagine ancient Greeks and Romans, Spanish Moors, Middle Age’s physicians and naturalists, Renaissance monks all harvesting humble weed-like lemon balm. This is one amazing aspect of botanical medicine: history brings knowledge of efficacy. Lemon balm’s story began to soar in Southern Europe more than 2000 years ago then spread to Spain, Turkey, and England as its virtues became well known. Mythology and Goddess lore link lemon balm as sacred to Diana also known as Artemis, goddess of animals and the woods. She kept lemon balm close for assistance with her beekeeping. Associations to life’s protection noted by ancient botanist physicians include Dioscorides who wrote of lemon balm’s ability to “sweeten the spirit. Paracelsus referred to lemon balm as the “elixir of life” offering it as royal medicine to prevent senility and impotence. Those who lived strong to an old age drank lemon balm tea each morning. Much folkloric reference and tradition centers on lemon balms sweet perfume. It was used for freshness in homes and to cover sick, unpleasant odors, for cleansing the mind and spirit, for restoration from sadness and melancholy. Lemon balm has a special history of use in monasteries where monks created healing salves and colognes. In the Victorian era when language carried messages in flowers, lemon balm symbolized sympathy, healing, and friendship. Lemon balm is known as a dream herb, a sachet placed under the pillow may help restless sleep and prevent bad dreams. Astrologically, lemon balm has association to the moon and Jupiter, believed to be most beneficial for the signs Cancer and Sagittarius.
Culinary and Cooking
Fresh lemon balm in the kitchen becomes multipurpose as a condiment and a green adding its lemony citrus sparkle to salads, smoothies, sandwiches, fruit cups, marinades, dressings, and butters. In cooking, it infuses flavor to soups, sauces, pasta, rice, quinoa and other grains, eggs, vegetables, and fish. It blends in spice mixtures with parsley, tarragon, chives, cilantro, basil and dill. Lemon balm works at breakfast, lunch, or dinner and especially for dessert. Infuse milk or cream to make sorbet or custard or add to scones, muffins, or cookies. Chopped leaves also provide a lemony topping for ice cream.
Beneficial Qualities and Traditional Uses
Sometimes the mildest herbs are the greatest treasures. Easy to ingest, their gentle action well tolerated and safe for even those most sensitive. Lemon balm’s autograph reads soothing and calming pleasant tasting mood elevator. One of the virtues of lemon balm is its versatility through the life cycle span. Colicky infants benefit from its soothing, calming nature when their nursing mothers drink a blend of fennel, chamomile, dill and lemon balm tea. For children, taste often defines herbal remedies acceptance. Lemon balm is a familiar and well received flavor. Added to other less agreeable herbs, it helps the medicine go down. When children suffer from colds and flus, upset stomach from gas, or a mild headache, lemon balm provides relief especially when mixed with other friendly flavored herbs like chamomile, peppermint, and ginger. Focus and attention can be enhanced even in attention deficit hyperactivity disorders with similar herbal formulas containing main ingredients lemon balm and hawthorn berry. In adolescence, when hormonal shifts cause emotional upheavals, lemon balm provides gentle calming. Stress, a factor in today’s society difficult to avoid, can be mellowed if early in life we learn ways to diffuse it. Lemon balm is like a blanket of peace, calming nervous stomach, reducing anxiety, elevating gloomy moods, and providing relief for sleepless nights. Long revered for its ability to balance emotions and unsettling feelings, moodiness, melancholy and sadness lemon balm gently soothes, comforts, and elevates frame of mind. The cognitive reach of lemon balm stretches even in aging to ease insomnia, calm anxiety induced palpitations, relieve headaches, and reduce Alzheimer’s symptoms. Internally and topically, lemon balm helps to fight viral infections such as herpes or chicken pox. Lip balm made from lemon balm infused oil is especially useful for oral herpes. Topical poultices, a paste of lemon balm leaves and flour, applied to boils or sores can accelerate the healing process. In addition to calming nerves that affect digestion, lemon balm can be used for upset stomach that feels like gas or cramps and prevention of gastric ulcers. It has a mild suppressive affect on the production of the thyroid hormone, thyroxin, and herbalists have used this benefit in hyperthyroidism and Grave’s disease. Large dose caution should be taken for anyone with hypothyroidism or on medications such as Synthroid.
Because lemon balm grows prolific, it can be harvested at anytime especially as it becomes bushy. Thin by about one third by snapping or cutting off the stems. To keep a supply growing, the best place to make the cut is at the upper third of the stem. It will keep fresh like any other herb or can be dried by hanging upside down or in a dehydrator. If large amounts, preserve fresh lemon balm by washing, chopping then freezing either in oil or water using ice cube trays to portion.
To prepare lemon balm tea, mix 1-2 teaspoons of dried herb and 8 ounces of hot water in a vessel such as a French coffee press. Steep for 15-20 minutes and then strain. Lemon balm as an addition to tea blends will impart its pleasant taste and is often used by herbalists to balance the strong not-so-pleasant taste of other herbs. Iced lemon balm tea cools summer heat.
This is an alcohol free extraction that tastes delightful, like a fruity cordial, which makes it perfect as a children’s herbal remedy. Glycerites use a mixture of water and glycerin, a sweet, syrupy liquid processed from vegetable oils. A good solution uses 1 part water with 3 parts glycerin (example: 1 cup water, 3 cups glycerin). To prepare, fill a mason jar with dried lemon balm leaves then pour in the prepared water and glycerin solution. Cover and keep in a dark but warm place for approximately 3-4 weeks. Strain, reserving liquid. Pour glycerite into a clean bottle and store at room temperature. To be more technical in measurements, use 1 part lemon balm to 4 parts water/glycerin solution. This translates, for example, to 4 ounces (weighed) of dried lemon balm with 16 ounces of water/glycerin solution.
Alcohol extractions of lemon balm can be prepared with the fresh or dried herb. The simple method is to finely chop or grind herb and place in a clean, dry wide mouthed jar and tight-fitting lid. Using 80 or 100 proof vodka, pour into jar to cover the lemon balm completely by approximately 2-3 inches. Cover with lid and store in a warm location for at least 4-6 weeks. Check daily to make sure herbs are submerged in the liquid and gently shake. Strain through a cheesecloth, reserving the liquid. Store in a cool place in a dark colored bottle that you have labeled. The more exact measurement method uses a formula of 1 part dried lemon balm to 5 parts alcohol diluted to 30 percent. If using fresh lemon balm the formula is 1 part herb to 2.5 parts liquid.
The essential oil process uses steam distillation to produce a concentrated product. The yield for one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of lemon balm is just 0.5ml of essential oil. The upper third of the plant is considered the most concentrated source to use. Search for trusted suppliers to avoid adulteration with lemon or lemongrass.
Gladstar R: Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide. Storey Publishing, Massachusetts; 2012.
Grieve M: A Modern Herbal. Barnes and Noble Books, New York; 1996.