Favourite Herbs: Lemon Balm

Lemon Balm

Melissa officinalis

Semi-hardy perennial; usually grown as an annual in colder climates

Height 20 to 80 cm, can reach 1.5 m; spread to 60 cm.

Loosely branched, with upright growth habit.

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Melissa officinalis (common lemon balm) is the most common variety and is widely available.

Planting

Lemon balm may be started indoors from seed or grown from young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How much: At least two plants.

When: Early spring; can withstand a light frost.

Where: Full sun; will tolerate part shade. Gold or variegated types prefer partial shade. Prefers well-drained, sandy soil. Space plants 30 to 45 cm apart.

Care & Nurture

Lemon balm is easy to grow! Prune regularly to promote bushiness. Cut plants to ground level when flowers begin to appear. Where lemon balm grows as a perennial, it should be divided every three to four years in the spring or fall to encourage new growth. Lemon balm is susceptible to powdery mildew.

Harvesting

Leaves can be harvested throughout the growing season, until the flowers begin to bloom.

For best flavour: Harvest only young leaves: older leaves have a stale, musty flavour.

Leaves: Clip individual leaves as needed. Cut sprigs and use whole, or strip the leaves. Discard leaf stalks.

Flowers: Edible, but not normally eaten.

Preserving the Harvest

Lemon balm is at its best used fresh: the leaves lose their intense flavour when dried or stored. Preserve by drying.

Tips

  • Lemon balm self-seeds and spreads easily, so you might want to grow it in a pot or isolate it in a section of your garden.
  • Like all lemon-scented herbs, lemon balm’s flavour is more intense when grown in poorer soil, but the overall plant growth will be lusher in rich soil.

To Note:

  • As the name implies, the leaves of this herb give off a strong lemon scent when crushed. It’s a wonderful plant for attracting bees; in fact, the genus name for lemon balm, Melissa, comes from the Greek word for bees.
  • Lemon balm may be used in aromatic herb baths. Dried leaves add a lemon scent to potpourris and herb pillows.
  • Lemon balm is the basis for the famous Melissa cordial Eau–de-Mellise des Carmes. It is also important in Benedictine and Chartreuse liqueurs.
  • In the language of flowers, lemon balm symbolizes sympathy.
  • Lemon balm is reputed to repel flies and ants.
  • An infusion of lemon balm may be used as a facial balm and as a rinse for greasy hair.
  • The London Dispensary in 1696 stated that “Lemon balm given every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain and relieve languishing nature.” The Swiss physician Paracelus called lemon balm the “elixir of life.” He believed that the herb could completely revive people.
  • The word balm is a contraction of balsam, traditionally considered the king of the sweet-smelling oils.