“A bunch of Balm improves nearly all Cups” (Mrs M Grieve)
The lazy, hazy days of summer are but a distant memory, or, if you are more of an optimist, a spec on the horizon, gradually getting closer and closer. Whilst writing this the weather outside is much like November…stormy, turbulent, grey and wet. However all around there are signs that spring is on the way…particularly in my pot of Lemon Balm, now bursting with fresh green shoots all over the surface, a reminder that summer sun, buzzing bees, Barbeques and Pimms are not too far away (hopefully!)
It was a toss up between Lemon Balm and Lavender but Lemon Balm (Melissa officianalis) had to be in my Alp-herb-et series. It’s one of my favourite ‘tea’ herbs, a treat I haven’t been indulging enough of late as I sadly ran out of dried stock a week or so ago…not to worry as more is on the way, soon it will be summer and the fresh lemony scented foliage will be abundant.
Growth and Cultivation
Lemon Balm (often just called ‘Melissa’) is a member of the mint family and has a habit just like its more minty relatives. The herb spreads via its roots, is vigorous and invasive which, unless you have space is best contained in a pot (which can be sunk into the herb garden) but the plants should be lifted, divided and re potted into fresh compost every 1-2 years (depending on pot size) to keep the plant full of health and vigour. I grow Lemon Balm in full sun in a large concrete pot which we inherited with the house and admittedly I haven’t had to divide my plant for a while however this past summer the plant was looking a little leggy and haggard….a sure sign its running out of steam.
The foliage of a typical healthy plant starts as vibrant minty green which is almost nettle leaf in shape but obviously much smaller. The leaves turn to a more pale green, sometimes even golden, and unmistakably lemony when rubbed. Unlike Lemon Verbena which reminds me of Sherbet, sour and sharply scented, Lemon Balm has a light and refreshing scent which I can’t get enough of in the summer. The stems are square around the width and grow to approximately 18” in height.
A mature plant can appear quite woody lower down, especially if not divided and re-potted frequently however I have found that regularly cutting and harvesting keeps the plant looking lush. When harvesting I cut stems off at ground level, if you cut half way up the stem, the herb sends out side shoots which produce an abundance of flowers which look great, but subsequently causes hard woody stems with depleted scent and diminished therapeutic properties. Sadly, those of us who wish to use herbs often have to sacrifice the pretty flowers to keep the herb in tip-top and useable condition. Other herbs such as Basil, Parsley, Coriander etc. all seem to lose a little something when allowed to flower…so I pinch out flowering tips and harvest little and often! This year, once I have split my large clump of Lemon Balm, I am going to put one pot aside just for the bees which I will allow to flower and do as it will…it’s well worth it to keep our supreme pollinators happy and thriving!
Plants can be grown from seed although it is available in most garden centres and nursery’s for a couple of pounds…one small pot will yield masses of herb over the years and I have had my lemon balm plant (or at least descendants of it) for over 10 years now just pulling up a few roots and taking them with me as I have moved. Like its more minty brethren, Lemon Balm is robust, will grow from a few roots and spread…once you have it…you will always have it!
I cut Lemon Balm back hard in late autumn / early winter although the plant determines exactly when, you can generally tell as the plant starts to visibly ‘retreat’. It’s vital to care for and manage any pot grown herb by providing plenty of water in dry spells and regular organic food (comfrey or nettle tea for example) during the height of the plants growing season. To prolong the harvest it’s sometimes good to give the plant an initial hard prune in around late summer, when the weather is still likely to be warm enough to reinvigorate the plant and produce a second flourish of fresh green leaves.
Nothing’s better after a tiring or stressful day than a cup of Lemon Balm tea, made with the freshly gathered leaves lightly crushed and covered with hot (not boiling) water. The dried herb works well also, but fresh is definitely best when it comes to members of the mint family. Lemon Balm restores, revives and clears the head, it lifts and lightens the spirits and it is pure joy in a mug. That’s my opinion of course…but the restorative properties of Lemon Balm are well documented so I know I’m not alone in this assessment.
In her famous tome ‘A Modern Herbal’ Ms Grieve refers to a gentleman called John Hussey of Sydenham who lived to be 116 years old…he claims his longevity was the result of having a cup of Lemon balm tea every day for breakfast, sweetened with honey. Clearly Lady Melissa is rejuvenating as well as restorative! So restorative in fact that she is said to not only help heal wounds (hence we have the word ‘Balsam’ from Balm) but protect and seal the wound from infection. Perhaps in Lemon Balm we have a potential Elixir of life!!!
In massage too, especially aromatherapy massage, Melissa oil has its place as both a carrier oil (i.e. the macerated oil) and an essential oil (the pure distilled oil). As a carrier or base, Melissa maceration is an excellent anti-inflammatory and idea for use on aged and more mature skin. The essential oil works primarily on the nervous system by calming and soothing…ideal for those who suffer anxiety and stress, experience stress headaches and migraines and so on. Being ‘citrusy’ in nature the oil can also be applied as an insect repellent.
Lemon balm works well in a number of desserts, syrups especially can be supplemented by steeping with Lemon Balm leaves as can honey. Often any sweet dish that goes with Mint will also go with Lemon Balm. I have used a little lemon balm chopped in summer fruit puddings and steeped the leaves in milk or cream before making ice cream or tarts.
Culpepper assigns Lemon Balm to the planet Jupiter and the watery sign of Cancer. Personally I find the balancing, harmonious feelings ascribed to Lemon Balm to be somewhat more Libran but there is something unmistakably comforting and Cancerian about it also. Being ruled by Jupiter, Lemon Balm may be used in any magical working associated with fortune, luck, prosperity and so on and being ruled by the sign Cancer (in which Jupiter is exalted by the way) Lemon balm will willingly bestow its blessings upon the home and family.
In addition, this is a herb I have come to associate strongly with Bees who adore the flowers, Lemon balm was frequently grown to keep hives together. Anyone who works with Bee’s as familiar spirits would find a gift of either Lemon Balm infused honey or a pot of the herb itself very well received especially if your little workers have successfully brought lots of sweet things into your hive!