Lemon Balm – Melissa officinalis
A member of the mint family it is a prolific grower and provides an attractive cover for most of the year. It grows in any soil, full sun or partial shade. It has a tendency to take over as it spreads freely by self seeding. It grows to an average of 30-80cm in height (12-32in). Quite bushy in appearance it has oval shaped, rough leaves that exude a strong lemon scent. Subtle yellow flowers appear in clusters in late summer.
The leaves are the part most used and they have multiple applications in the kitchen and in herbal medicine. There is evidence that lemon balm has been in use for over 200 years with the Swiss physician Paracelsus calling it the “elixir of life”. Many old herbalists refer to it as a comforter to the heart and that it will drive away melancholy and sadness. In other words, even in the old days it was well known for its antidepressant properties.
As I already mentioned, lemon balm tea and tincture is used to treat depression, nervous tension, insomnia, anxiety and tension headaches. A sedative and relaxant it makes for a perfect infusion to have at the end of a stressful day, or even in preparation of a stressful day to come. It is known to have properties which will treat insect stings and sores by placing a poultice of crushed leaves directly onto the affected area. Added to apple cider vinegar it makes for a great hair rinse and added to bath water it will soothe the mind and the muscles.
In the kitchen the fresh leaves add their lemon flavour to salads, soups, sauces and stuffings. Great with poultry and fish, lemon balm also lends itself to improve the flavour of desserts, cordials and liqueurs. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) was a great fan of Carmelite Water in which lemon balm is the main ingredient. Lovely in a fruit salad or a cooling summer punch made from lemons, apple juice and lemon balm infusion.
For recipe ideas…
* Use handfuls of fresh lemon balm leaves to stuff into the cavity of a chicken and sit on a bed of leaves and stems to roast. This keeps the chicken moist and provides a delicious lemon flavour all through the bird.
* Pour a litre (1 quart) of boiling water over a good handful of fresh leaves, cover and leave to cool. Strain and add the juice of 2 lemons and a litre (quart) of clear apple juice. Serve chilled.
There are other uses for lemon balm too. Crushed leaves will provide a wonderfully scented oil when rubbed onto wooden furniture. And for those of you who keep bees, if you rub the inside of a new hive with lemon balm leaves it will attract the bees and make sure they will never want to leave. Hence it’s other known names which are Bee Balm and Honey Plant.
Do try lemon balm at home, it is a terrific remedy and addition to your diet.