Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

This scraggly perennial grows up to 18 inches tall. Its leaves are somewhat heart-shaped with toothed edges, and make it look like a diminutive nettle. Sporadically through summer it produces the small clusters of yellow or white flowers that bees love so much. Let your fingers check for the signature

scent of lemon and mint.

 

How to grow

It’s hard to go wrong with lemon balm. It’s happy in any ordinary soil, although your plants will have bigger, plumper leaves if you add generous amounts of organic matter and water during a drought. Hardy in Zones 4 to 9, this herb needs midday shade in the South. If it gets beat up in hot weather, shear it back to the ground; it will regrow. Lemon balm doesn’t spread rampantly like other mints but does self-sow. Remove the spent flowers if you don’t want more lemon balm — or more bees. You can start lemon balm from seed, but it’s easier to take stem cuttings or divide an established plant (its shallow roots are thick and matted). Space plants about 18 inches apart.

 

Cultivars and related plants

If you want a lemon balm you can show off to friends, look for one of the variegated cultivars, such as ‘Aurea’, or the appropriately named ‘All Gold’. (These cultivars need protection from hot sun even more than the species.)

The balm of Gilead, Cedronella canariensis, has a balsam rather than a lemon scent. It’s appropriate for potpourri but not for the teacup. Vietnamese balm (Elsholtzia ciliata) combines lemon and floral flavors — it’s not our cup of tea, but you might feel differently. Beware, it’s quite invasive.

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Lore and usage

So you’ve spilled hot coffee on your computer’s hard drive, discovered that you threw away those records the IRS wants, and received an irate phone call from your teenage son’s girlfriend’s father (all before noon). Sounds like you could use a cup of the beverage “esteemed of great use in all complaints supposed to proceed from a disordered state of the nervous system.” You need some

lemon balm.

Three centuries ago, people believed that a morning glass of wine flavored with lemon balm would “renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature and prevent baldness.” The Roman scholar Pliny went so far as  to suggest that a warrior could stanch a wound merely by tying lemon balm to his sword. Sixteenth-century writer John Gerard reported that beekeepers rubbed it onto their hives to keep the swarm together. (The genus name Melissa is Greek for “bee.”)

Science has borne out lemon balm’s antibacterial and tranquilizing effects, although these are less pronounced that those of other herbs. Today we know the herb, sometimes called just balm, as a soothing tea, a too-eager colonizer in the garden. Another common name is sweet Melissa, which the

Allman Brothers borrowed for their 1972 hit song, “Melissa.”Use this delicately flavored herb fresh in salads — vegetable, fruit, or meat — or add it at the last minute to foods that benefit from a hint of mint, such as seafood, broccoli, asparagus, rice, or couscous. Lemon balm’s combination  of relaxing and healing qualities make it a fine addition to bath water and  facial washes.

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