John Gerard (1545-1612)
"This herb is widely used to cure melancholy and diseases that are the result of finding ourselves in places and life situations we are not ready to accept."
Michael Tierra (from The Way of Herbs)
What wonderful herb is this that can solve many of our modern day problems and was equally well known by herbalists in the past? It is Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), one of the most common and easy to grow herbs.
Lemon Balm will grow in full sun, part shade and even in quite heavy shade. In damp soil it will grow into a luxuriant plant, in dryer soil it is easier to control. As it can be kept clipped to fit its place in the garden, it is a good idea to keep a clump near the kitchen door so that it is readily available. At one time I made a short hedge and clipped it regularly, using all the clippings for herb teas.
It certainly is one of the most delicious herb teas in the herb garden, not only on its own but mixed with any other herbs. Its scent is of sweet lemon, and the taste very refreshing. A favorite tea is a mixture of lemon balm, apple mint, bergamot and lemon verbena. But I drink lemon balm by itself every morning for breakfast until the leaves die down, which may not be until the first snowfall. Lemon balm is very hardy.
The leaves are also a tasty addition to green salads, stuffings, fruit salads or stewed fruit (especially pears) and fruit punches. However, whenever it is used it is better fresh than dried as much of the flavour is lost in the drying. I only use my dried balm for winter teas, usually mixed with other tea herbs such as mint and thyme.
The botanical name Melissa is Greek for bee and the plant has a great connection with bees. Its small white flowers are full of nectar. In addition the plant seems to have a calming effect on bees. Some bee keepers will rub their hands and the hives with the leaves before working with them.
Lemon balm can be grown from divisions, cuttings or seed. It is only invasive if you allow your plants to set seed but if you have been cutting them regularly for teas you have probably cut the flowers off before they set seed. This is important because it can be a nuisance if it is allowed to seed throughout the garden. It does not increase by runners like mint, so it is very easy to keep the clump under control by chopping it down in size each spring or dividing it and discarding the older parts of the plant.
There is a very attractive golden variety which has bright green and gold leaves in the spring. Gradually they turn green as they mature through the summer but cutting back hard, in order to force new growth, will keep the variegated leaves coming.
Another plant that is occasionally confused with lemon balm is lemon verbena, mainly because they both have such a lemony scent. Lemon Verbena (Lippia citriodora) has a more concentrated lemon scent than lemon balm. Only one or two leaves are needed to flavour a cup of herb tea. Perhaps its most important use is to add a lemon scent to pot-pourri. It does not have any important medicinal value.
Unlike other herbs, this plant is a tender shrub and will not survive a frost. It will grow well in a greenhouse or solarium. It is deciduous and will drop its leaves at the end of summer. These should be collected for teas and pot-pourri. It is propagated from cuttings taken in the spring or summer just as the new leaves form in the spring when the whole bush should be pruned and shaped.
These two herbs will provide all the lemon aroma and taste you need in your herbs both fresh and dried. More lemon scents are found among the scented geraniums. Both rose geranium and lemon geranium have strong lemon aromas and although, like the lemon verbena. They are tender and killed by the first frosts they are very easy to grow and propagate in a sunny window.
Owing to the exciting new changes in Natural Life this will be the last column on herbs. I hope that any reader will feel free to get in touch with me if they have any questions on herbs or gardening with Nature. My address is Rachel Mcleod, R.R.3, Puslinch ON N0B 2J0. Or contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. My phone number is (905) 659-1001.