How to Grow Lemon Balm
Lemon balm is a member of the mint family, and like all the mints, it tends to ramble. It produces long stems that start out tidy but eventually begin to lean every which way like a head of unruly hair. Wandering by a patch in spring you'll see light green, toothed leaves in a dome shaped mound. The plant can grow to almost five feet in some cases, but tends to be somewhat smaller -- and certainly looks best if cut back regularly to maintain a cohesive shape.
Originally a native of southern Europe, lemon balm now grows wild in many parts of the world, including areas of the U.S. It's a perennial in hardiness zones 5 through 9. It's also a bee magnet. The "melissa" in its scientific name is Greek for honeybee. You've probably heard that honey bees have been having a tough time with parasitic wasps and pesticides in recent years. Show your bee love by filling a corner of your garden with lemon balm. Imagine the honey that pairing would produce. Oh, and if you've had trouble pollinating your squash blossoms (or anything else), plant a little lemon balm nearby for added insurance.
This versatile herb is easy to grow. For everything you get into the bargain, you'd expect lemon balm to be persnickety about soil pH or susceptible to wilt or vulnerable to the predations of common insects. It turn out that everything about this little plant is good news, though.
The literature typically suggests planting it in soil with a neutral pH (7) and warns of potential problems with mildew. I've found lemon balm is adaptable and more rugged than most writers give it credit for. Just give it decent soil and protect it from punishing heat with a layer of mulch and a regular watering schedule -- or at least place it in a location that receives afternoon shade. It will tolerate somewhat boggy soil, too.
|Flowering Lemon Balm|
Where many mints tend to take over a garden plot, lemon balm is less aggressive about usurping real estate. I've had a few plants in an eastern facing shady spot for the last decade. I prune them to near ground level in fall, and they regrow every spring, much like peppermint and other common mints. They overwinter under inches of compacted snow, and all they ask for is a little fertilizer and some drought protection in spring and summer.
This useful plant also tends to be naturally pest and disease resistant. Many strongly scented herbs are. Rub fresh lemon balm leaves on your skin when you're doing yard chores. It'll act as a homemade mosquito repellent.
If you plan to harvest lemon balm on a regular schedule, it's a good idea to fertilize plants every couple of months for the best results. Here's a good rule of thumb: the more you harvest, the more you should nourish.
Uses for Lemon Balm
Lemon balm is a culinary, cosmetic, medicinal and aromatic herb -- a true herbal bonanza. It has some impressive and handy uses: It's considered one of the top five medicinal herbs for sleep problems, and has been used as a sedative and antianxiety herb for centuries. Along with valerian, it's often referred to as "herbal valium." Where valerian smells like sweaty feet when used in, say, a calming tea, lemon balm smells like lemon blossoms in a cup. It really does have a heavenly aroma.
I've mentioned before that it smells like lemon furniture polish, but the fragrance is more delicate and sweeter than that. Although it's a plant in the mint family, it doesn't smell the least bit minty. If you keep it near a walk or garden gate, it will release fragrance when visitors brush past it. Here's a tip: Try keeping lemon balm with lavender by your entry or porch. It's a nice way to welcome guests and one they'll remember.
Fresh lemon balm leaves are also a nice addition to fruit salad, tossed green salad or fresh salsa. Sprigs make a great garnish that's a nice change from plain old parsley (or dill or cilantro). Chopped or dried leaves also make a mild lemony seasoning for fish, shellfish or fowl. I've even added chopped leaves to cupcake recipes.
Lemon balm is often used fresh or dried as a relaxing tea, and you can add it to homemade potpourri for a clean, light scent that compliments most citrus based blends.
|Lemon Balm in Spring|
Medicinal Lemon Balm
There's a lot literature available explaining the potential medicinal uses for this herb. Although its sedative properties are well documented, research into the advisability of using it for more serious disorders is ongoing, though. It contains over 100 chemical compounds, many of which need additional formal research.
Melissa Officinalis may or may not be effective in treating the following conditions with which it's been associated. The jury is still out and may be out for some time to come. Your best recourse is to track study results and other news on your areas of interest and discuss those findings with your doctor or herbalist.
- Alzheimer's disease
- Graves' disease
- Cramps (female discomfort)
- ADHD (Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder)
- Loss of appetite
Lemon balm is an antiviral, an astringent and an antispasmodic. It is also high in antioxidants (flavonoids).
If you like the idea of taking lemon balm as a calming or sleep inducing herbal remedy but don't like tea, the fresh leaves can be added to bath water for a homemade aromatherapy session. Oral supplements, scented candles and essential oils are available, too. (Inhaling the fragrance can carry many of the same benefits as drinking the tea or taking a lemon balm supplement.)
There are potential side effects when using lemon balm regularly or in large doses. It may increase the effects of prescription sedative medications. It may make it more difficult for the body to absorb some types of thyroid medications, too. Lemon balm should be avoided by pregnant or nursing women as its effects on young children and the unborn aren't fully understood. Consult your doctor or herbalist before taking lemon balm or any other medicinal herb or herbal blend.
Although the use of the common name "lemon balm" is pretty widespread throughout the U.S., you'll also find Melissa Officinalis sold or referred to by other names, like:
- Bee balm
- Sweet Mary
- English balm
- Garden balm
- Honey plant
- Dropsy plant
- Heart's delight (Don't you love that?)
Growing Lemon Balm Indoors
Lemon balm can thrive indoors as a houseplant, but it needs at least six hours of good light a day. Here's a quick light test:
On a sunny day, place a sheet of white paper in front of the window where you plan on keeping the pot. When the sun's shining, position your hand between the window and the paper at about the elevation at which the actual plant will be located. Your hand should produce a well delineated shadow from which you can see the clear outline of all your fingers. That's the level of light the plant will need for about six hours a day. Less light will require the addition of a grow light or the plant will likely have problems.
Offer lemon balm good potting soil and a layer of mulch. Avoid letting the soil dry out completely.
Lemon balm also makes a good commuter plant: a potted patio or deck plant that overwinters indoors.
Special Notes: I've never had powdery mildew problems with lemon balm, but on general principal I do prefer watering all my plants in the morning rather than in the evening.
You can find my simple but effective recipe for lemon balm tea here: Tea Cozy - Lemon Balm Tea Recipe
Dr. Duke's Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. " Melissa officinalis L." http://sun.ars-grin.gov:8080/npgspub/xsql/duke/plantdisp.xsql?taxon=612
USDA. " Melissa officinalis L." http://www.ars-grin.gov/cgi-bin/npgs/html/taxon.pl?24036
WebMd.com. "Lemon Balm." http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-437-lemon+balm.aspx?activeIngredientId=437&activeIngredientName=lemon+balm&source=1
Photo1 - LemonBalm1.jpg Forest & Kim Starr [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4a/Starr_080117-1569_Melissa_officinalis.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AStarr_080117-1569_Melissa_officinalis.jpg
Photo2 - LemonBalm2.jpg By Kenraiz - Krzysztof Ziarnek (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e4/Melissa_officinalis_fl_kz.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMelissa_officinalis_fl_kz.jpg
Photo3 - LemonBalm3.jpg Forest & Kim Starr [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a8/Starr_070906-8823_Melissa_officinalis.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AStarr_070906-8823_Melissa_officinalis.jpg