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Melissa officinalis is native to southern Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa. Melissa is the Greek word for bee, and the plant is a favorite of honeybees. Arab physicians believed it was good for heart disorders as well as for lifting the spirits. Greeks and Romans used it. The colonists brought it with them to the New World. It appears in the American edition of Pereiara's Materia Medica as an herb that induces sweating in fevers and in regulating menstruation. It is widely cultivated today both for its scent and its practical uses.
Harvest and Use: Lemon balm has many uses. As a cosmetic, it makes a good skin cleanser. Steamy facials are recommended for acne. Dry leaves are used in potpourri. It is reputed to repel insects and can be blended with other insect repelling herbs such as lavender, lemongrass, and rue. Rub down the kitchen table with the herbs to keep bugs from food and throw some in the campfire or barbeque pit to keep bugs away. Beekeepers have rubbed it on the inside of the hives to encourage a new swarm to stay.
Lemon balm makes both delicious beverage and medicinal teas. It is also nice added to black tea. Fresh leaves can be chopped and added to green salads, fruits salads, marinated vegetables, poultry stuffing, and fish marinades and sauces. It goes well with broccoli, asparagus, lamb, fish, and shellfish. Combine it with other lemon herbs such as lemon thyme, lemon basil, and lemon verbena and add to vinegar. It is one of the ingredients in Benedictine and Chartreuse liqueurs.
Medicinally lemon balm is used in tea for fevers, to help digestion, and for tension headache. The essential oil is used in aromatherapy for depression, melancholy, and nervous tension. Externally in salve, it has been effective in relieving symptoms of herpes simplex, sores, and painful swellings. A compress is good for gout. A most exciting development is that this very common plant is being investigated along with common sage as herbs with memory-improving properties.
Harvest before it flowers for optimum fragrance. Be careful not to bruise the leaves as you harvest. Take leaves throughout the season. For full harvest, cut the entire plant 2" above the ground. Dry on trays rather than hanging in the shade, and dry quickly to prevent it from turning black. Do not harvest unless sunny weather is predicted for several days. Plant yield may be scant the first year, but will prove ample in the second.
Cultivation and Propagation: Lemon balm is an upright perennial belonging to the mint family. It is has a strong lemony-mint scent and flavor. It grows to 2' tall and is loosely branched with insignificant pale yellow flowers. It likes a pH of 7.0, well-drained soil, and partial shade. It is hardy to zone 4.
Lemon balm is not an ornamental as it is a rather scrawny plant. The variegated variety could be a nice accent plant in the background. It does belong in an aromatic garden, a children's garden, and a beekeeper's garden.
Lemon balm does well in a container in a shady area. Do not over-fertilize or it will put out too lush and too soft growth. Water normally during the growing season, but keep it on the dry, cool side during winter. Lemon balm is easy to grow from seed, which germinates better if left uncovered. Plants can also be divided in spring or fall, and it can be grown from cuttings taken in summer.
Pests: Lemon balm is susceptible to powdery mildew.