Lemon Balm, a Powerhouse of a Medicinal Herb

 “Lemon Balm is sovereign for the brain. It strengthens

the memory and powerfully chases away melancholy”.

John Evelyn, an English herbal physician

Did you know that lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, has been used medicinally for centuries? Lemon balm is native to Southern Europe. Still, with its strong lemony smell and deliciously pleasant flavor, it was so popular that by the middle ages, it was cultivated throughout all of Europe, even making its way to the Middle East. Avicenna, an 11th-century Arab herbalist, said of the herb: “It causeth the mind and heart to become merry.” Melissa means “bee” in Greek, and as the name suggests, bees adore Melissa’s tiny but sweetly scented flowers. Legend has it that medieval beekeepers rubbed the crushed lemon balm in hives to encourage nesting. The Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) believed that lemon balm was an “elixir of life” and claiming that it would increase strength and lengthen life. North America, too, was soon enamored with lemon balm brought over by the colonists who used it for tea and potpourri, as well as for increasing production of honey by honeybees.

Lemon balm is a powerhouse of a medicinal herb; in fact, it treats so many conditions it could be considered a cure-all. It has been used for treating dyspepsia, IBS, acid reflux, stress and anxiety, herpes simplex, brain health, hyperthyroid, Alzheimer’s, and insomnia, to name a few. Lemon balm long known for its ability to improve digestion contains volatile oils, known as terpenes, which help to relax muscles and relieve symptoms of gas, food stagnant, ease abdominal cramping, and promote the overall digestive health.

Some herbalists consider lemon balm as a nervous system trophorestorative(Hoffmann, 2003), a word which indicates that over time, it tonifies and repairs the nervous system. Part of the reason for this is that lemon balm contains rosmarinic acid, which increases the availability of GABA in the brain, where low levels are believed to be associated with anxiety and other mood disorders. In addition, rosmarinic acid has antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, with studies indicate that using topically on herpes simplex sores has shortened healing time and recurrence (Gaby, 2006). If that wan not enough, recent research has shown that lemon balm is also radioprotective and shields DNA from radiation-induced damage (Zeraatpishe et al., 2011). An extract of lemon balm is one of the treatments, based on research, suggests that it stops the processes that over-activate the thyroid from binding with the thyroid receptor, specifically in patients with Grave’s disease (Auf’mkolk, 1985). Clinical research shows that taking a standardized extract of lemon balm daily for four months reduces agitation and improves symptoms of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease (Akhondzadeh, 2003). For the first time, chronic Melissa officinalis L. leaf extract treatment has been demonstrated to improve mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders, its associated symptoms and insomnia in humans (Cases, 2011)

Once you realize all the ways you can benefit from the many uses of lemon balm, I’m sure you’ll be itching to grow some in your garden. Lemon balm can be grown from seed, but in Central Oregon with the wind, heat, and its short growing season, I recommend starting lemon balm from established plants, rooted stem cuttings, root divisions, or seedlings from a nursery. It prefers fertile, loamy soil, with mid to full-day sun, but always appreciates a bit of afternoon shade and soils that retain moisture.

As a perennial herb (which means it will come up year after year), it can reach heights of 12-24 inches with equal width of spread. Lemon balm is hardy to zones 3 and 5, making it perfect for Central Oregon’s growing climate. If starting lemon balm from seed, you have several options, including starting seed in the spring, in the fall, or indoors. When starting seed in spring wait until the soils have warmed up and the danger of frost has passed or if planting in fall, plant seed in early fall to late winter. The challenge of fall planting is that with soil movement from ice and snow, the seeds can become too deep to germinate in the spring. To start lemon balm indoors, sow seeds six to eight weeks before the last frost. I sprinkle seeds in small pots filled with a seed starting mixture and barely cover. Seeds generally take seven to fourteen days to germinate at 70°F, but longer if indoor temperatures are cooler. Once seedlings have their second set of true leaves, either thin them or repot individual seedlings into larger containers, after all, the danger of frost has passed, seedlings should be set in the garden twelve to eighteen inches apart. Whichever method you choose, recognize that lemon balm seeds are slow to germinate. Once your lemon balm plant is established, and if left to go to seed, you will have many lemon balm babies the following year.

Lemon balm can always benefit from mulching year-round, but winter mulch is of the utmost importance to insulate the plant from being heaved out of the ground in times of repeated freeze and thaw cycles. To prevent scraggly or spindly growth, divide mature plants every three to five years. Lemon balm also is an excellent companion plant for squash as well as it repels mosquitoes and squash bugs.

Harvesting lemon balm is super easy, you can harvest a handful of fresh leaves to use immediately, or you can collect and dry the leaves for later use. Harvest the leaves just before its flowers open when volatile oils are at their most potent concentration. It is often possible to get two harvests a year, once in mid-summer and another in the fall, just remembering not to remove more than two-thirds of the growth at a time. For lemon balm, I remove the leaves from the stalks by holding the tip (top) of the stem firmly between your left thumb, index, and ring fingers. With the same three fingers of your right hand, pull firmly downwards along the stem. For drying, I either use a dehydrator set on low or spread the leaves on a cookie sheet and set somewhere that does not get direct sun and has good air circulation. Luckily living in Central Oregon herbs dry fast and are typically done in two to three days.

Lemon Balm Cold Sore Salve

  • 1 cup of coconut oil
  • 15 g St John’s wort dried herb
  • 15 g Lemon Balm dried herb

Step #1-Melt coconut oil in a double boiler/in a glass bowl over water that has reached a simmer, add herbs and mix well, infuse for two-four hours. Strain through cheesecloth/nut milk bag. Return oil to the bowl and heat slightly.

Step #2-Melt two tablespoons chopped/grated beeswax and two tablespoons grated cacao butter into the slightly heated lemon balm oil. Remove from heat, let cool slightly and add ten drops of lemon balm essential oil.

Step #3-Pour the oil into lip containers or small pots, let cool and harden.

Optional ingredients:

  • Two drops of clove oil pain relief
  • Four drops peppermint essential oil anti-viral, cooling, pleasant scent
  • Two drops tea tree essential oil anti-viral

So now that your garden is full of lemon balm, how do you use it? Lemon balm is quite versatile as either a culinary or medicinal herb. As a medicinal herb, the most obvious preparation is to infuse the leaves in hot water for tea. Typically, a therapeutic dose of an herb is one ounce of herb to 2-3 cups of water. Put the lemon balm leaves in a mason jar, pour in hot water, cover with a lid and let sit for 10-15 minutes, strain and drink throughout the day. One example of a tea formula that includes lemon balm for addressing digestive issues is to combine, one heaping teaspoon of chamomile flowers, lemon balm leaves, and catnip leaves, along with a half teaspoon of fennel or dill seeds. Pour boiling water over herbs and steep for ten minutes.

Fresh lemon balm can be used in drinks or added to steamed vegetables and fruit salads. A great way to use fresh lemon balm leaves is to make a lemon balm pesto. Just mix one-part new lemon balm to one-part fresh basil leaf along with olive oil and garlic (if desired), and you have yourself a delicious pesto, that is ready to add to pasta, chicken or fish. If that was not enough, lemon balm could be used as a base for making a liqueur. Add four tablespoons of chopped lemon balm, a scraped peel of a fourth of a lemon, one-quarter teaspoon of coriander seed, and one-third of a cinnamon stick, four leaves of peppermint, and one cup of vodka. Place all the ingredients in a bottle, shake vigorously, and steep for three weeks. Shake the jar daily during the steeping period. Strain and filter into a dark bottle, adding sweetener to taste, let sit for two months, and then enjoy it.

Lemon Balm Martini

A favorite of mine is a lemon balm martini. Combine one ounce of lemon juice, four ounces of vodka, two to three teaspoons of simple sugar, along with a handful of lemon balm leaves. Pulse ingredients in blender and strain into a shaker filled with ice. Stir, then strain into martini glasses with a spring of lemon balm as a garnish.

When taking any herb, it is essential to determine if it might interfere with any medications or health issues you have. This website has detailed information on dosing and interactions https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-437/lemon-balm.

Holly Hutton, Herbal Goddess Medicinals

References:

Akhondzadeh, S., et al. (2003). Melissa officinalis extract in the treatment of patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Journal of Neurosurgery Psychiatry, Jul; 74(7): 863–866. doi: 10.1136/jnnp.74.7.863

Auf’mkolk, M., et. al. (1985). Extracts and auto-oxidized constituents of certain plants inhibit the receptor-binding and the biological activity of Graves’ immunoglobulins. Endocrinology, May; 116(5):1687-93

Cases, J., et. al. (2003). Pilot trial of Melissa officinalis L. leaf extract in the treatment of volunteers suffering from mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances. Medical Journal Nutrition Metabolism, Dec; 4(3): 211–218. Published online 2010 Dec 17. doi: 10.1007/s12349-010-0045-4

Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism. (2003).

Gaby, A. R. (2006). Natural remedies for Herpes simplex. Alternative Medical Review, Jun;11(2):93-101.

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