For such a soft, light green herb that grows like a weed, the food and medicine of lemon balm is pretty mighty. It’s a powerful mood-elevating herb, a serious antiviral, and a incredibly versatile culinary ingredient. Like salt and pepper, lemon balm’s bright, lemony flavor and fragrance compliment nearly anything you’d put on your kitchen table.
If you don’t know lemon balm yet, I hope you’ll get to know her soon. The extraordinary food and medicine of lemon balm kind of makes me feel like a better human, especially for those times when you might feel like you need a little rescuing from yourself.
Once it sprouts in your garden, you will never get rid of it. It will attach itself to your boots and go with you when you move.Kami McBride, The Herbal Kitchen
say hello to lemon balm
Meet Melissa officinalis. Here’s the skinny:
- Lemon balm is in the mint family, and if you know anything about the mint family, you know that once you plant it, it’ll be with you forever and might even take over your garden. Bring this plant to your garden enthusiastically, but also with intention. Its relatives include basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, lavender, and of course, all the mints.
- It’s an upright, herbaceous perennial with oval-shaped, round-toothed leaves that can get rather bushy. Lemon balm can grown anywhere from 8″ to 5′ in height and 12-24″ wide.
- Lemon balm’s flower is two-lipped and usually pale yellow, white, or pinkish. They grow in whorled clusters along the stems.
- It will grow practically anywhere. Anywhere! Lemon balm is one of those plants that will push through asphalt and sidewalk cracks just to reach the sun. Although, it’s happiest in moist, but well-drained soil.
- Lemon balm is known for its lemony fragrance and flavor which is due to its essential oil composition. The main essential oils that are responsible for the lemony smell are citral and citronellal, but lemon balm also contains geraniol, which is rose-scented, and linalool, which is lavender-scented. This combination of essential oils make up lemon balm’s unique scent!
- Bees love it! The genus, Melissa, means “bee” in Greek and was likely named for its ability to attract honey bees.
- Lemon balm has been associated with the feminine, the moon, and water. In the temple of the Ancient Roman goddess Dianna, lemon balm was considered a sacred herb.
lemon balm as medicine
Lemon balm has a long history of medicinal use. As far back as the 1st century, Greek physicians were using lemon balm to promote menstruation, to help relieve gout, and to remedy toothaches. If mixed with wine, it was said that lemon balm could also be used to treat scorpion stings and dog bites.
Through the centuries, lemon balm, like most plant medicines, served many a purpose.
- Early 17th century English herbalist Nicholas Culpepper believed lemon balm was good for the heart, mind, liver, spleen, digestion, and fainting.
- 16th century Swiss physicians believed that lemon balm was an elixir of life that could help to increase vitality and strength, as well as to lengthen life.
- 11th century, physicians would use lemon balm to help treat depression.
- Medieval monks and nuns used alcohol to help preserve the healing powers of many botanicals. Lemon balm was one of many herbs used in traditional cordials used to treat digestive illnesses, including Carmelite water. Carmelite water dates back 600 years and was traditionally made herbs like lemon balm and angelica infused in distilled alcohol and used to treat a wide variety of illnesses.
Today, the incredible dignity of lemon balm’s medicine lies in its use as a serious antiviral and a powerful nerve tonic. Recent research has confirmed the historical use of lemon balm as a mild and uplifting sedative. Its effects on the central nervous system are so valuable to the human population’s rampant struggle with stress and anxiety brought on by our culture’s glorification of the hustle. Lemon balm is, in fact, the perfect herbal companion to help counteract anxiety, tension, and stress-related fatigue.
The incredible dignity of lemon balm’s medicine lies in its use as a serious antiviral & a powerful nerve tonic that can help relieve anxiety & emotional turmoil.
lemon balm as food
While lemon balm is perhaps known more for its medicine, mostly because it’s not a very popular culinary herb, it is, in fact, an incredibly pleasant and versatile culinary herb. Its culinary use spans both savory and sweet. In fact, there’s hardly a dish you could name that lemon balm wouldn’t fit in to. Seriously.
Early colonists in North America would use lemon balm as a substitute for lemon in jams and jellies. It can be added to so many dishes, anything from cheeses to egg dishes to vegetables and fish to custards, jams, jellies, and cakes to herb vinegars and marinades. Lemon balm also compliments many fruits and is a great herb to add into fruit salads. Lemon balm syrups can be added to soda water, desserts, or tea.
As a food, lemon balm is incredibly high in flavonoids, which contribute to its high antioxidant capacity. It’s also high in vitamin C and thiamin, a B vitamin that is essential for glucose metabolism and plays an important role in nerve, muscle, and heart function.
lemon balm 101
|Family||Lamiaceae (the Mint Family)|
|Part(s) Used||Leaves, stem, flowers|
|Origin||Native to Europe, central Asia, & Iran, but now|
|When to Harvest||Whenever green & vibrant. (The top half of the plant|
is usually the most medicinal & nutritional.)
|As a Medicine||Nervine|
Vasodilating hypotensive (helpful in the treatment of hypertension)
|As a Food||Rich in flavonoids (antioxidant)|
Contains vitamin C & thiamin (a B vitamin)
|Cautions||Regular use is not advised with hypothyroidism & is |
contraindicated during pregnancy unless under the
guidance of a qualified health professional.
Dye plant (flowers can be used to make a rose-colored dye)
Bring some of the food and medicine of lemon balm into your life. I promise you won’t regret it!
- The Herbal Kitchen: bring lasting health to you and your family with 50 easy-to-find common herbs and over 250 recipes by Kami McBride (2019)
- Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth by Dr. Sharol Marie Tilgner (2009)
- Lemon Balm: an Herb Society of America Guide by The Herb Society of America (2007)
- Herbal Antivirals: Natural Remedies for Emerging & Resistant Viral Infections by Stephen Harrod Buhner (2013)
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