Herb of the Month (July): Lemon Balm

By Megan Jones

Balm is sovereign for the brain, strengthening the memory and powerfully chasing away melancholy. – John Evelyn, 1679.
Lemon Balm. Just the mere thought of its uplifting aroma and cleansing taste brings happiness and ease to the mind and spirit. Its uses have been mentioned in the earliest recorded history of herbal healing, for everything from depression to colds. Not only does Melissa offer medicinal benefits, but is also an excellent flavoring for food and salads. In addition, its powerful volatile oil is a key element in aromatherapy, including many perfumes and cosmetics.

History:

A member of the mint family, Lemon Balm is a fragrant herb adored by bees that has a recorded use
dating back thousands of years. Melissa even comes from the Greek word for “honey bee”, and was
rubbed on beehives to encourage bees to stay together and attract more. Early herbalists, such as
Avicenna, coined the term “it makes the heart merry” which it continues to do throughout history. To this day, it is used for treatment of depression, anxiety and insomnia. Another famous physician, Paracelsus, claimed that the herb could revitalize the every part of the body and even had a preparation named primum ens melissae. It was so well known as a healing herb that even such royalty as King Charles V and the Prince of Glamorgan drank the tea every day. The Prince lived to be 108 years old, owing his long life to the beneficial plant. Because of its reputation to strengthen the heart and lift the spirits, it was an important ingredient in Medieval cordials, also known as “elixirs of youth”. In fact, the other part of Lemon Balm’s name, officinalis, means “of the workshop”, alluding to the medieval apothecary shop. The leaves steeped in wine and used as a compress have been said to be a potent remedy for scorpion stings. A decoction of the leaves was said to be used as a mouthwash for aching teeth. In Colonial times, lemon balm was used by housewives and added to salads, soups and butters. Pliny stated that its powers so great that “if it was attached to a sword that had made a wound, the blood would be immediately staunched”.

Healing:

Lemon Balm is notorious for successfully treating a wide variety of ailments. Some of its most famous uses are for fevers, depression, as a digestive aid, headaches, menstrual cramps and heart spasms. Because it acts as a sedative, the leaves are also reputed to lower blood pressure. Lemon Balm is an herb that can be given to children and the elderly because of its gentle nature and effectiveness. Although it is gentle, it is also potent – made into a tea, it encourages sweating to help rid the body of toxins thus relieving such ailments as colds and flus. Lemon Balm shows amazing antibacterial and anti-viral properties and has been proven to help combat mumps, cold sores (Herpes simplex) and other viruses. In addition, studies have shown the herb to slightly inhibit the thyroid-stimulating hormone to restrict Graves disease, a hyperthyroid condition. Lemon balm contains antihistamine properties useful for treating eczema and allergic reactions. Externally, the herb is favored for treating insect bites and minor wounds. Lemon Balm can also be used like other mints for upset stomach and gas. The volatile oils are used in aromatherapy for easing depression and calming nervous tension. It has been suggested that drawing a hot bath with the herb leaves will help women with delayed menses.

Native American Uses:

Cherokee elders called Balm “bee”, or wa du li si. The herb was used for salves; the leaves to make cold
drinks or hot tea. It is used to aid women through menstruation when suffering from cramps, headaches and/or anxiety. It was also used in one of several formulas to calm the spirit of a person who was said to be acting strange.

Folklore & Mysticism:

In pre-Hellenic mythology, the priestesses of Aphrodite were called Melissa. Aphrodite was regarded as a fertility Goddess and honey cakes shaped in female images were often made for festivals celebrating and honoring this important Goddess. Balm has also been associated and used in pursuit of romance and in baths to attract love. It only makes sense that its planetary ruler is Venus. Charms can be made and worn to bring a lover into one’s life. In Arabian herb lore, the herb was used to influence love.

Identification:

Lemon Balm is a perennial with upright, branching stems which are covered in “hairs”, reaching 3 feet in height. Light green toothed leaves are found growing in opposite pairs at each joint. White two-lipped flowers bloom in clusters at the axils of the leaves, between June and September. The second year of growth yields the most leaves.

RECIPES

Relaxation Tonic
2 tbsp hops
2 tbsp chamomile flowers
2 tbsp lemon balm
1 tbsp spearmint leaves
1 tsp lavender leaves, chopped (or flowers)
Steep in 2 cups of boiled water, covered. Strain after 10-15 minutes and drink half a cup to 1 cup to relax. Good to drink when the mind can’t slow down. (from Mother Nature’s Herbal by Judy Griffin)
Lemon Balm Vinaigrette
1 Tbsp. shallots, minced
2 Tbsp. lemon balm, minced
1/2 tsp. lemon zest
Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
4 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. brown sugar
8 Tbsp. vegetable oil
Mix first 7 ingredients together, then slowly blend in the oil. Mix well before serving. This is delicious on salads, especially fish or chicken salads. You can also marinate tofu, chicken or fish piece in this mixture before cooking. After cooking, serve the vinaigrette as a sauce. Makes about 2/3 cup. (from preferredconsumer.com)
Cheesecake with Lemon Balm
Pastry:
1 cup flour
4 Tbsp. butter or margarine
Pinch of salt
Filling:
4 Tbsp. butter or margarine
2 Tbsp. honey
12 oz. cream cheese
2 eggs, beaten
6 Tbsp. lemon balm, minced
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. First, make pastry. Sift flour and salt into medium bowl. Cut in butter until mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add enough water to make a soft dough. Roll out to line a 7-inch quiche dish. Bake unfilled for 15 minutes. For filling: beat margarine, honey, and cream cheese together in a bowl until soft and creamy. Beat in eggs and fold in lemon balm. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Pour filling into baked pastry shell. Bake for 45 minutes or until filling is golden and set, but not cracked. Serve with whipped cream, or cover chilled cake with a thin layer of sour cream. Makes 6 servings. (from preferredconsumer.com)