Relax and take cheer; Lemon Balm is here. This refreshingly humble member of the Mint family, (Latin: Melissa officinalis), often considered to be a weed, plods along as a hardy faithful, and yet it is a surprisingly hip and helpful herb.
Aromatherapists use its essential oil to comfort people such as the terminally ill or bereaved suffering from emotional over-sensitivity. Melissa essential oil is also reputed to relieve anxiety, shock, depression, and nightmares. And due to its antispasmodic effect, it is used for stress-related digestive, menstrual, and respiratory problems. When combined with German chamomile, lemon balm also addresses eczema and allergies.
Perhaps previously overlooked due to its invasive tendencies, lemon balm is currently enjoying a second glance by herbalists and chefs alike, and its calming sensibilities are endearing themselves to our stressed out and over-taxed bodies and minds. Indeed, when consumed as a healthy herbal tea, there can be no better tonic for uplifting spirits and relieving tension.
An Elixir for Melancholy
Native to the Mediterranean region, lemon balm may have been cultivated for over 2000 years. The ancients were certainly well aware of the plant and its powers. Herbalists Gerard (1545 – 1612) and Pliny the Elder (60 A.D.) observed that lemon balm is useful in attracting and keeping bees to their hives. So it’s not surprising that its genus name, Melissa, is derived from the Greek word for bee. Officinalis indicates that it was registered in the official apothecary. The common name ‘balm’ is actually an abbreviation of Balsam (from Balsam of Gilead), the sweet smelling and mysterious ‘chief of oils’.
Pliny noted, “It is of so great virtue that though it be but tied to his sword that hath given the wound, it stauncheth the blood.” Gerard and Dioscorides agreed with this claim and used the leaves steeped in wine to treat snakebites and scorpion stings.
Author Maud Grieve gives a nod of scientific proof to those ancient uses in her book A Modern Herbal. She writes, “It is now recognized as a scientific fact that the balsamic oils of aromatic plants make excellent surgical dressings: they give off ozone and thus exercise anti-putrescent effects. Being chemical hydrocarbons, they contain so little oxygen that in wounds dressed with the fixed balsamic herbal oils, the atomic germs of disease are starved out, and the resinous parts of these balsamic oils, as they dry upon the sore or wound, seal it up and effectually exclude all noxious air.”
Benedictine Abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen, writing about human nutrition in the 12th century, suggested drinking the strained tea of one part lemon balm and three parts fennel leaves, boiled in water. She used this as an elixir to combat mental confusion. “Lemon balm reduces the effects of harmful humours and prevents them from gaining the upper hand”, she claimed.
So widespread was lemon balm’s reputation for promoting longevity and dispelling melancholy, that by the 17th century French Carmelite nuns were dispensing their ‘Carmelite Water’ to a huge following (recipe to follow).
Introduced into Britain by the Romans, lemon balm is now naturalized in both England and North America, where colonialists transported the plant they had come to rely on for teas and flavouring. American Shakers grew lemon balm, along with sage, summer savory, sweet marjoram, thyme, and other common herbs throughout the 19th century. They recommended it for relief from mild fevers.
One of the herbs grown by Thomas Jefferson, lemon balm was well established as an important culinary herb, one especially suited to syrups and beverages. The Pleasures of Colonial Cooking, a cookbook based on the Ashfield Recipe Book (circa 1720), lists “two and a half of the tops of Balm” as an ingredient of Balm Wine.
Growing and Stalking the Plant
Once planted, lemon balm will take over an herb bed, jumping about seemingly at will, so containers are a logical way of controlling its invasive nature. In full sun, the plant grows to two feet in height, bearing small, white, nondescript flowers in mid to late summer. The square and branching stems support broadly ovate or heart-shaped leaves with scalloped edges. The whole plant is a delightfully lemony aromatic herb, with the scent being at its best when the tiny flowers begin to open.
At this time of year, it’s not hard to find lemon balm growing in local gardens, or arranged in aromatic bunches at local farmer’s markets and health food stores. Grab a bunch and take it home to eat fresh or add to your cooking.
The French Love Lemon Balm
“Eau de Melisse de Carmes: Take 4 oz of dried balm leaves, 2 do. dried lemon-peel; 1 oz each of nutmegs and coriander seeds; 4 dr. each of cloves, cinnamon, and dried angelica roots; 2 lbs spirit of wine; 2 ditto brandy. Steep and distil in balneum mariae, re-distil, and keep for some time in a cold cellar.” – Adapted from Mackenzie’s 5,000 Receipts, 1829
The Carmelite Order (or the Order of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel), is the name of several cloistered Catholic monasteries and nunneries, originally founded in the 12th century and linked to a community of hermits on Mount Carmel in Israel. In the 17th century, a Carmelite Order of nuns in Paris, France, held and closely guarded the formula for their ‘aqua mirabilis’ or miracle water that came to be known as Carmelite Water.
Thought to be a forerunner of the famous French eau de cologne, Carmelite Water was taken internally to improve memory and vision, and to reduce rheumatic pain, fever, melancholy, and congestion.
Our interpretation of the elusive Eau de Melisse de Carmes follows, and although the original technique would have the cologne distilled with alcohol, that practice is illegal in many areas. We therefore suggest that you make a tincture by soaking the herbs in alcohol. Quite in keeping with the current trends of ‘total spa indulgence’, the toilette water may be used as a refreshing face and body spray, hair rinse, or hand and linen rinse. Or add to bath water for a relaxing and uplifting bath experience.
Carmelite ‘Miracle Water’
(Makes 2-1/2 cups)
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh lemon balm
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh angelica root or stem
- 1 lemon, rind and juice
- 1 tsp crushed coriander seeds
- 1 two-inch stick of cinnamon, crushed
- 1/2 cup vodka
- 2 cups orange blossom or elderflower water or filtered water
- A few drops essential oils (clove, lemon, rose, or other favourites), optional
- In a clean, large, wide-mouth 1-quart jar with a screw-top lid, combine lemon balm, angelica, rind and juice of lemon, coriander seeds and cinnamon. Pour vodka over the herbs. Secure the lid on the jar and place the jar in a warm place such as a sunny windowsill. Steep the herbs for a minimum of two weeks, and up to one month, gently swishing the contents every few days.
- Strain and discard the herbs. Return the tincture to the jar and add the flower water. Add a few drops of essential oils if using. Shake and decant into smaller, dark-coloured glass jars or spray bottles. Label and store in a cool, dark place.
Emperor Charles V, whose parents were Philip the Fair of Flanders and Joanna the Mad of Spain, was said to have drunk Carmelite Water daily. Still sold in Germany today as Klosterqu melissen Geise, Carmelite Water is one of those mysterious herbal blends that delight and link us to the past.
Cooking with Lemon Balm
“Balm, or lemon balm alone, or with sage, is much recommended, with a few flowers of lavender; it has a most delicious flavour and taste, but is most agreeable when green.”
– Family Receipt Book, 1819
Light and sweetly fresh, lemon balm adds a splash of citrus with undertones of lemon-mint to both savoury and sweet dishes. Use the young tops of the plant for cooking and drying for teas because the large, older leaves tend to have a soapy, musty flavour.
Gather and use generous amounts of fresh lemon balm leaves and add to dishes after the cooking is completed; the aroma is delicate – and long cooking will dissipate the flavour. Combining the clear scent of lemon balm with other herbs is an effective way of bringing out the subtle and complex essences of ingredients.
Blend fresh lemon balm with spearmint leaves for fruity summer punch or with white wine and soda. Add the flowers and leaves to fresh salads or chop fine for salad dressings. Blend equal parts lemon balm, sweet cicely, and lemon verbena for a delicious lemon tea. Equal parts of lemon balm, chervil, and sweet cicely make a perfect baking blend for fruit pies, puddings, custards and fresh fruit salads.
Dandelion Salad with Citrus Dressing
Bitter tastes have a tonic effect on the body and should not be sweetened with fruit if their digestive tonic action is to be fully enjoyed. Use radicchio, endive, chicory, watercress, or sorrel for greens with the same bitter qualities as dandelion. Be sure to gather dandelion greens and petals from areas free of pesticides and herbicides. (Serves 4)
- 2 cups fresh dandelion leaves or other greens (see above), washed and patted dry
- 2 cups fresh spinach, washed and patted dry
- 1/2 cup bean sprouts
- 1/4 cup sliced green onions
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1/4 cup fresh dandelion petals, optional
- 1/4 cup Citrus Dressing (below)
- In a large salad bowl, combine dandelion, spinach, sprouts, onions, parsley, and dandelion petals. Drizzle Citrus Dressing over and toss well. Serve immediately.
This light citrus dressing allows the tangy taste of the dandelion leaves to have its effect on the body. (Makes 1/2 cup)
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup fresh orange juice
- 1 tsp grated lemon rind
- 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 1 Tbsp fresh lemon thyme leaves
- 1 Tbsp chopped fresh lemon balm
- In a clean jar with lid, or small bowl, combine oil, orange juice, rind, lemon juice, thyme and lemon balm. Shake or whisk to combine. Taste and add salt or extra lemon juice as required.
Serve this pesto with fish or chicken, or toss 3 tablespoons with 2 cups cooked rice for a zesty side dish. (Makes: 1 cup)
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/4 cup natural almonds
- 2 cups fresh basil
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon balm
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 tsp grated lemon zest
- 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil
- In a food processor or blender, combine garlic and almonds. Process for 20 seconds or until chopped. Add basil, lemon balm, Parmesan cheese, and lemon zest. Process for 30 to 40 seconds or until chopped. With motor running, add lemon juice and then olive oil in a steady stream through opening in the lid. Keep adding oil, 1/4 cup at a time, blending until pesto has reached desired consistency. Taste and add salt as required, process 3 seconds to blend.
- Store: Cover tightly and keep for up to 1 week in the refrigerator or up to 3 months in the freezer.
Recipes adapted from The Vegetarian Cook’s Bible by Pat Crocker (Robert Rose: Toronto, 2007).