Saturday, June 30, 2012

Herbal Medicine, People's Medicine...Lemon Balm

Lemon Balm is the quintessential people's medicine. It is easy to grow, found in many gardens, familiar to many, mild enough for children and babies, yet effective medicine, and owns a rich history as a valued medicine. Yet for all this, I have found that it's uses have been greatly forgotten, and even gardeners who grow lemon balm and know what she is, do not use her at all. How could we have forgotten the value of this plant, grown in Thomas Jefferson's garden, brought to America by colonists as an indispensable medicine, referred to by Paracelsus as "the elixir of life", and used by the ancient Greeks and Turks long ago? For me, lemon balm is the herb of summer, and I probably visit the melissa patch more than any other herb on these hot summer days.

Melissa officinalis is the scientific name for lemon balm. "Melissa" refers to the greek word for honey bee. Nowadays, lemon balm is also commonly called melissa, which I like, because it sounds more like the friend she has become for me. She was named after the honey bee because she is a powerful honey bee attractor. Lemon balm was often planted around bee hives to keep the bees happy.

Melissa was introduced to Europe in the 10th century from Arabia, where she has been used since ancient times. In the medieval literature, melissa is referred to as "herbe melisse", "bawme", or just "balm". It was first valued by monks in their apothecary gardens, where it was used for dressing wounds and as a tonic for good health. Later, lemon balm became popular for cooking, medicine, and especially as a fragrance to cover foul odor.

Lemon balm is a mint, with the characteristic square stem and opposite leaves. Like most mints, it is very aromatic. Melissa's lemony scent is hard to resist, and I often reach down to grab a sprig as I walk by the patch in the garden just to enjoy it's delicious scent for a moment. The essential oils in melissa responsible for this lovely scent have also been used to treat anxiety, depression, insomnia and headaches, so inhaling is highly beneficial. The whole plant is relaxing, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-depressant. It soothes and calm the digestive system and lowers an overheated body temperature. Melissa has also been found to be an effective treatment for herpes and shingles. But more than anything, I love melissa as a cooling summer tea. I often combine it with other yummy herbs, but really there is no need, for lemon balm makes a simple, pleasant and cooling tea all on its own.

I gather the young tops of the plants. Continually harvesting the plants in this way stalls their flowering and keeps them lush and tender. Chopping them up exposes more surface area to the water and makes for a stronger tea.

 I add the chopped herbs to a mason jar, filling it about a quarter full. (When making tea with fresh herbs, you need to use much more than you would with dried herbs because they are not as concentrated.)

I then fill the jar with near boiling water and allow it to steep for at least 20 minutes, but I often leave it for a few hours before straining.

Alternatively, you could use unheated water, and place the jar in the sun to steep for most of the day.

After straining I add a few drops of stevia for sweetening, then place the tea in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, we enjoy a delicious, cooling, and uplifting summer drink that has the added benefit of keeping us healthy.

What more could we ask for?
Lemon balm fell out of favor as a medicinal with the arrival of powerful drugs. This gentle tonic was just too mild mannered to compete with flashy magic bullets. But as we learn more about the value of a strong constitution to maintain health, perhaps there is value in returning to the old, gentle and effective herbs that have sustained us throughout history. Melissa, plant of the honey bee, famed for offering the gift of long life, is truly a people's medicine, growing patiently in our gardens, waiting for us to remember her gifts and partake of her health giving properties once again.

Do you use lemon balm? If you do, leave a comment about your favorite way to use her, if not, give her a try.

Happy medicine making!


  1. What a lovely post. I too love lemon balm and so agree with what you say about its scent being hard to resist. I like the idea of the chilled, sweetened tea, something I haven't tried before but will do soon. I like to use lemon balm for infused oils and it makes one of the most delicious infused honeys ever! I also use a lot of the tincture for patients, most often as a nervine and anti-depressant but also for its anti-viral properties and I find the essential oil invaluable for treating cold sores and shingels. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and knowledge.

    1. Hmmm, tincture and honey....I think I'm going to have to make a melissa elixir now, which will be great for the kiddos. Thanks Lucinda!

  2. Lemon balm is helpful to soothe and treat mouth ulcers. I make a very concentrated tea, keep it in the frig, and it makes a soothing mouthwash. Used many times a day it helps to heal the ulcers. Haven't figured out best plan for the winter - freeze batches of tea, dry the herb, etc.

    It's also a great addition to milder teas like chamomile - they're next to each other in the garden

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Bev.
      I dry lemon balm every year for winter teas. But I am thinking, you may want to infuse it in honey like Lucinda suggest above.

  3. We have an entire yard full and I've never known what to do with it. Thank you so much!

  4. Yeah! No one should miss out on the gifts of lemon balm.