Friday, October 23, 2009

Herb Of The Week - Lemon Balm

The herb of the week is Lemon Balm. (Melissa officinalis)

We got some Lemon Balm from a clearance sale at a nursery toward the end of the summer and planted it in the garden, where it promptly died. I noticed that although the plant died, the roots did not, because it was sending up new growth at the end of September. I’m hoping that the root system is strong enough to make it through the winter and we will see it growing there in the spring.

How To Garden Advice .com Says that “Lemon Balm is one of the easiest herb plants to grow, and is a perennial that will winter over in many areas, particularly if mulched in the fall.” So I’m really hoping it will make it.

Lemon Balm is a perennial herb, in the mint family, native to the Mediterranean region, western Asia, southwestern Siberia, and northern Africa. It is widely naturalized in North America and elsewhere.

Like its name suggests, Lemon Balm, has a strong lemon scent. (the word Balm is an abbreviation of Balsam, a reference to the sweet smelling oils in the plant) Its' vein-filled, oval-shaped leaves contain lemon-scented oils. The plant strongly resembles spearmint, or catnip, with clusters of tiny white flowers. Besides as a flavoring in cooking, the oils are used in laundry products, furniture polish, cosmetics and hair care products.

If you run out of Pledge, you can just run up to the garden -- the leaves are supposedly good for polishing wood

Lemon Balm grows to a height of 3 feet and gives the best show when planted along borders or in front of shrubs. Lemon Balm flowers are attractive to bees, but don’t confuse it with Bee Balm, and entirely different plant. Many people confuse the two, because Lemon Balm is so attractive to Bees, and… …well, they both end in balm…. Hello?? Besides that, the first part of the botanical name, melissa, translates into honeybee.

In ancient Ephesus, known today as Turkey the honeybee was considered to be a form the human soul took when descending from the Goddess Artemis herself. Bees were not only important in the cosmology of ancient man but also in their commerce (honey, wax). Thus anything that helped to attract the valued honeybees to a hive, or keep the honeybees from swarming, gained in stature.
This is where Lemon Balm enters recorded history. Lemon balm was a sacred herb in the Temple of Artemis/Diana, and the herb that assisted the ancient beekeepers in keeping honeybees happy and well fed with nectar.
According to Pliny , bees were “delighted with this herb above others”; Thus the Greek derived scientific name “Melissa” and the lesser known name of “apiastrum”. Both of Lemon Balm’s given Greek names mean bee/honey bee.

In ancient Greece sprigs of Lemon Balm were placed into beehives to attract wandering honeybee swarms.
Lemon balm was also planted around the bee’s hives to keep them happy and more apt to stay at the hive and not swarm away.

Much like most plants in the mint family, Lemon Balm spreads rapidly, and if not controlled can become a nuisance. I would recommend planting it in a container, or burying a container of some type in the bed, to contain the roots. It will spread two ways. The roots will send out runners, and the plants will put out roots whenever they touch the ground. Containing the roots, and keeping the plant pruned will help you keep your Lemon Balm under control.

If you want to plant your Lemon Balm in the ground, but want it to
Stay in one spot, try sinking a section of 10” PVC pipe 12” long into the ground, or, cut the bottom off a five gallon bucket that has sprung a leak and use the tube. Your barrier should reach at least 12” deep and should be big enough, (minimum 8-10”) to allow the plant to form a healthy root base.

To plant Lemon Balm, Sow seed in spring, or you can plant transplants in spring or early autumn. Any reasonable soil and spot will do. If you have divided your plants in autumn then they may need a bit of protection over the winter – either in a cold frame or mulched with straw to protect from the frost. If it shoots early in the spring, then keep a watch for frosts and protect the plants if you think it’s going to be very cold – it won’t kill the roots, but it will damage the leaves and delay your using them.

I know in Michigan, we often get a week or two of spring-like weather in February, when all the plants start to grow, thinking it is spring, then winter will hit again in full force for another month. I think it’s natures way of toughening up both the plants and the people who grow them.

If your patch of Lemon Balm, (and this will work for mint and catnip as well) gets out of hand, divide it in the late fall. This will allow the cold to take out the weaker plants leaving you with a smaller, but stronger and healthier patch in the spring.
Lemon Balm can be harvested throughout the summer months by snipping or pinching. It grows back quickly and tolerates heavy harvesting well. To help keep it from getting out of control, harvest it before the flowers have a chance to produce seeds. Like any herb, the best time to pick is after the morning dew dries, but before the afternoon sun gets too hot.

When I post recipes, sometimes they are recipes I have tried, and sometimes they are just recipes that I think sound good. These recipes fall into the latter category. I’m looking forward to having enough Lemon Balm next year so I can try them.

Stewed Chicken with Blackberries & Lemon Balm

· 4 boneless chicken breasts, skin on
· 2 T extra virgin olive oil
· ¾ cup of hearty red wine
· ¾ cup of chicken stock
· Grated rind of 1 small orange
· 1 T freshly squeezed orange juice
· ½ c fresh lemon balm, finely chopped, plus 4 extra sprigs for garnish
· 2/3 c heavy cream
· 1 egg yolk
· ¾ c fresh blackberries, plus another half cup for garnish

Sauté both sides of the chicken breasts in the olive oil over medium heat sufficiently to seal in flavor, about five minutes each side, then transfer them to a casserole dish. Add the wine, chicken stock, orange rind and juice and lemon balm to the sauté pan, stirring while bringing it slowly to the boil. Add salt pepper to taste. Pour over the chicken and bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.
Blend the cream with the egg yolk, along with about half-cup of liquid from the chicken that you've allowed to cool.
Add the ¾ c blackberries and stir this back into the casserole,
cover and bake for another 10-15 minutes. Garnish with the rest of the blackberries of lemon balm sprigs.

For dessert, try the following:

Berry Balm Crunch

· 3/4 c each of blackberries, raspberries and blueberries
· 3 tablespoons of lime juice
· 2/3 of a cup of packed, brown sugar
· 1/3 cup of unbleached white flour
· 1 cup of quick cooking rolled oats
· 1/3 cup of shredded coconut
· ½ cup of butter, melted
· 1 tsp. cinnamon
· 1/3 cup of finely chopped fresh lemon balm leaves

Mix the berries, lime juice and lemon balm in a bowl, then spread this mixture in an eight-inch square buttered baking pan. Mix the rest of the ingredients thoroughly and pack over the berries. Bake at 375F degrees for about 30 minutes, or until crisp and brown. Serve hot with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream with a garnish of fresh lemon balm leaves.

Lemon Balm Vinaigrette

3 T. lightly flavored olive oil
1 t. chiffonade of fresh lemon balm
1/8 t. salt
1/16 t. fresh ground black pepper
2 T. rice wine vinegar

Combine all ingredients just before using, for the freshest taste and brightest color. Use as a salad dressing with baby lettuces and touch of grated, aged Jack cheese, or toss with fresh steamed veggies (it's delicious with asparagus!).

In addition Lemon Balm leaves also taste great:

--boiled into the broth when you make vegetable or lentil soup
-- in tea and fruit salads
--sauteed with a little garlic oil and pepper with vegetables
--in steamed or Mexican rice
--mixed with melted butter spread on tortillas

For a general seasoning, use it in tandem with tarragon. Try adding some freshly minced leaves to lamb or fish marinades for the grill, and toss a few sprigs on the fire to perfume the air and keep away the mosquitoes. When using whole leaves be sure to handle them delicately; they tend to bruise and turn black. Combine Lemon Balm with other garden herbs for homemade herb vinegars. For a eye-catching garnish, freeze some small leaves into ice cubes to serve in lemonade.

Lemon Balm was used in the Middle Ages to reduce stress and anxiety, promote sleep, improve appetite, and ease pain and discomfort associated with digestion (including flatulence and bloating as well as colic). Even before then it was steeped in wine to lift the spirits, help heal wounds, and treat venomous insect bites and stings. Today, Lemon Balm is often combined with other calming, soothing herbs, such as valerian, chamomile, and hops, to enhance the overall relaxing effect.

There is current research underway suggesting that lemon balm may interfere with thyroid and sedative related treatments. If you are being treated for either of these conditions, consult your doctor before using lemon balm.

Although few rigorous scientific studies have been conducted on lemon balm, many health care professionals suggest that this herb is beneficial for a variety of health problems, including Alzheimer's disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, indigestion, gas, insomnia, and hyperthyroidism.

Plants, just like people, are subject to many viruses (virusi ? Vireese? What is the plural of virus?) And over the years, the ones that have anti0viral properties were able to survive longer and stronger than those that do not.

Many believe that Lemon Balm is one such plant, that it has anti-viral properties, and that when taken as a tea will help the body fight virus. Research seem shaky at best as to the effectiveness, but Lemon Balm tea is pleasant tasting enough that I don’t mind drinking it, under the remote chance that it may help.

To make a lemon-scented bath, tie ¼ cup crushed leaves into a handkerchief or washcloth. Let the water run through the bag until the tub is filled. In smaller quantities, use lemon water to rinse your hair after washing.

Topically, the oils act as a mosquito repellent and have been said to be effective in treating cold sores.

In ancient times, Lemon Balm was planted by the front door to drive away evil. Since it attracted bees, and bees were considered a sign of good luck, it was assumed that the Lemon Balm drove away bad luck and invited in good luck.
In Modern magic, Lemon Balm is primarily used in the pursuit of romance. It is an herb which attracts, and is sometimes made into a charm and worn to bring a lover into one's life. It may also be used as a bathing herb, some of the delightfully scented leaves scattered over the water, or an infusion poured to mix with the bath. . A tea made of the leaves brings calm, which is appropriate for preparing for ritual work.

In kitchen magic, Lemon Balm is said to be ideally suited for healing those who suffer from mental or nervous disorders. It is claimed to be very useful for those of sound mind who need to keep their mental processes in superior condition and said to give energy to make one more desirable to the opposite sex.

Avicenna, an 11th century Arab herbalist said "it causeth the mind and heart to become merry"

My mind and heart can use all the merriment they can get.

This article is linked to The Food Renegade’s Fight Back Fridays feature.

Click Here to read all about Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethnic food strategies.


  1. You this lemon balm is definetly something I would love to plant the more I read about it. For one plant it can do so much . You information was very helpful and both recipes you found sound delicious. I have to ask you though did you notice more bees around your herbs?

  2. I pulled out all my lemon balm, because it was too invasive, but after reading your post, I want to grow it again. Maybe next year, I'll grow it in a pot, so that it doesn't get out of control.That recipe for the chicken with blackberries, sounds wonderful!


  3. I planted lemon balm this spring. It hasn't flowered yet, but we did have a pretty harsh drought and I'm not always prompt with the watering LOL. I did not notice any bees, since there weren't any flowers, but the bees did visit the many basils I let go to flower.

    Thanks for the info on using lemon balm in so many ways. I'm going to try that chicken dish next year when blackberries are in season.

  4. Vickie, my poor Lemon Balm didn't get anywhere near the flowering stage this year. Right after I planted it, I thought it had died completely, so I just gave up on it, but as I was cleaning my garden up late last month, I moved some leaves and saw that there were tiny Lemon Balm shoots growing out. It is still only about 2" tall. I'm really hoping it makes it through the winter.

    But like Motherhen68 said, letting my herbs go to flower, which I did at one point this summer when I was just too busy to cut them, attracted lots of bees, especially to the basil.

  5. A good post on lemon balm.I found this website useful for Herb Gardening tips I think you guys will find it interesting too.

    Kim - Herb garden plants