Lemon Balm, Herb of Success
The fragrance of lemon balm has enticed people for at least 2,000 years. The smell of lemon with a trace of mint is unforgettable and sure to please. Often planted to attract bees, the lemon balm herb has a history long in tradition and legend. There is the possibility that lemon balm, or balm as it is readily known, was referred to in Homer's Odyssey. It has long been used for bites of many kinds. The Arabs were especially fond of lemon balm, and believed it was good for heart disorders and a way to lift one's spirits. Here, we discuss lemon balm - its uses, both culinary and medicinal, how it is grown, and a brief history.
History of Lemon Balm
Lemon balm has earned the name of "herb of success." As far back as 1696, the London Dispensary claimed that "Balm, given every morning, will renew youth, strengthen the brain and relieve languishing nature." With a rich history, this plant of the southern European and North African region is now widely cultivated in many parts of the world.
Pliny the Elder, the Roman scholar, said that bees preferred lemon balm to all other plants. The Greek physician Dioscorides used the plant for bites of insects and animals. Lemon balm was put into wine to make a tonic for patients of bites.
Lemon balm was brought to this country by the colonists, and it is said that it was widely used to "lift the spirit."
Lemon balm was considered to be nature's Prozac in earlier times. Culpeper, the British herbalist said that "lemon balm causeth the mind and heart to become merry, and driveth away all troublesome cares and thoughts of the mind arising from melancholy and black choler." Possibly it's wonderful lemony fragrance was therapy enough in itself. Tests of lab mice, though, show that it had a sedative effect on their central nervous system.
The oil of lemon balm appears to inhibit the growth of bacteria and virus. This would give evidence that its use to heal insect and dog bites has value. Culpeper was also said to use it for healing "foul sores."
Lemon balm has a lemony taste with a touch of mint. The leaves are best used fresh, but can be dried for teas. Its taste is mild, so it is often added to different mints to make an herbal tea.
Toss whole or chopped leaves into a green salad. It also works well in fruit salads, steamed vegetables, chicken salad, in poultry stuffing, punch, and fish marinades.
Lemon balm works well with asparagus, beans, broccoli, corn, lamb, olives and shellfish. It is also used in the liqueurs Benedictine and Chartreuse.
How to Grow Lemon Balm
Lemon balm is a loosely branched perennial that is noted for its scent, not looks. It is a member of the mint family. Stems are square shaped as is typical of mints. It grows to a height of 2 feet, and tends to sprawl a bit. Flowers are white or yellowish, tubular, and about 1/2 inch long. Leaves are opposite, broad and 1 to 3 inches long. Lemon balm flowers from July through September.
Lemon balm prefers an average well drained soil. It is hardy to zones 4-5. Try to maintain a pH balance of 7.0 for optimum results. Lemon balm grows well in full sun to shade. Herbalists recommend planting it at the edge of the garden so that when you brush past, its lemony aroma will be released.
Lemon balm grows easily from seed. It will germinate better if seeds are not covered. Place cheesecloth over the seed in the herb garden to keep it moist and from blowing away. If the plants seem somewhat scrawny the first year, they will reward you the next year with an ample harvest.
Lemon balm has little threat from insects, but is susceptible to powdery mildew. If this white powdery mold appears on upper leaves, remove immediately from the garden, and do so throughout the growing season.
Harvesting and Storage
Always harvest before the plant flowers. Because it is so prolific, it is not unusual to get three cuttings a year. It will lose a great deal of its fragrance after drying. Cut off the entire plant 2 inches above the ground, and insure it is quickly dried. If it takes over two days to dry, it often turns black.
Tips For The Chef
Make a tea by boiling either fresh or dried leaves in water. Strain the liquid, and stew fresh or dried fruit in it.
Lemon balm brings good fragrance to the herb garden. It attracts bees the best of any plant. Plant some at the edge of your herb garden, and enjoy the fresh scent of lemon all through the growing season.