Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae). It’s thought to be native to the mountainous regions of Southern Europe and Central Asia, but like many herbs, has naturalized around the world. Which is not surprising given its history.
LEMON BALM IN HISTORY
Cultures have long believed in lemon balm’s power to soothe and promote health. From the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides to the 11th century Arab physician Avicenna to 16th century German surgeon, botanist and alchemist Heironymus Brunschwig all attesting to its reputation to strengthen the heart and lift the spirits.
The Greeks believed it promoted long life and as did Medieval alchemists who thought it an important ingredient in the cordials known as “elixirs of youth.” 16th century Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus believed it could restore one’s health and vitality. But perhaps no one said it better than English botanist Nicholas Culpepper, suggesting it could “open obstructions of the brain” and “expel melancholy vapors.”
In the Middle Ages, when foul smells wafted from streets and streams, it was used as a strewing herb–aromatic plants strewn on the floor to release pleasant aromas when walked upon. Indeed Thomas Tusser–a regular at the court of Henry VIII– listed it among the twenty-one strewing herbs in his 1557 instructional poem Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie.
LEMON BALM IN THE GARDEN
Did you know its genus (Melissa) is Greek for honeybee? The Greeks long observed the affinity between lemon balm and honeybees. They believed that bees wouldn’t abandon a hive if lemon balm grew nearby and would even rub the leaves on the hives as an attractant.
Indeed it is a favorite among pollinators. Lemon balm’s bushy shoots produce an abundance of tiny, white flowers, which themselves produce an abundance of nectar.
Lemon balm is rewarding and easy to grow, but gardeners beware. Without “supervision,” continuous harvesting or some sort of barrier, lemon balm can quickly take over a garden bed–great for the bees and a passive gardener, not so great for the other plants you’re tending…
On Smoot’s Flavor Farm, we grow a few different varieties of lemon balm, each with their own combination of terpenes and aromas, ranging from very lemony to citronella. We’ve situated our balms adjacent to our pollinator buffer in blocks that can expand without causing too much havoc!
LEMON BALM IN THE KITCHEN
Lemon balm is an excellent herb to incorporate into baking and confections. Substitute it for lemon rind or zest. It’s also delicious in salad dressings, sauces, soups, and pesto. But perhaps its best use is in teas, cordials, wines and vinegars.
Lemon balm and French tarragon infused vinegar is our secret to the very best Hollandaise sauce! Check out our blog for some lemon balm recipes, like Lemon Balm Bundt Cakes, Lemon Balm and Garlic Scape Pesto, and a Lemon Balm Dressing or Marinade.
Lemon balm tea is an excellent evening cup that’s said to calm nerves, aid digestion and promote good sleep. Folks prone to anxiety and depression tend to be particularly fond of it!
HOW TO COOK WITH LEMON BALM
Gently rinse under cool water and pat dry. Strip the leaves from the stems and use whole leaves or chop as desired. I find that lemon balm tends to wilt quickly after harvesting, so it’s best used as soon as possible.
BEST FLAVOR PAIRINGS
- Nectarines and peaches
- Salads (both green and fruit)