|By Ann McCormick
When I first began learning about herbs it opened new dimensions in gardening and cooking. Old friends like sage and rosemary showed me surprising uses and interesting histories. I also uncovered new delightful herbs. One of my favorite early discoveries was luscious lemon balm, the darling of my herb garden.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a hardy perennial to Zone 5. It can grow to 3 feet high in ideal conditions, although it usually only reaches 2 feet in my North Texas garden. The leaves are bright green and about 2 inches long with toothed edges. Although lemon balm is a member of the mint family, it is a less aggressive spreader. To the casual glance the leaves resemble spearmint leaves, probably why it’s sometimes misidentified as lemon mint.
Lemon balm has long been associated with bees. The botanical name “Melissa” is derived from the Greek word for bee. Medieval beekeepers would rub lemon balm on the inside of a beehive to encourage bees to nest there. Anyone who has grown this herb will testify that the flowers, though small, will attract bees.
Gardeners who’ve grown lemon balm will be interested to know about three recent introductions. Commercial growers in Denmark have developed a lemon balm called ‘Quedlinburger Niederliegende’ which has a higher essential oil content. This is also reported to be a taller growing lemon balm.
Another variety of Melissa officinalis is known as ‘Lime Balm.’ Growers describe it as having a lime scent but is this real or only wishful thinking? Dr. Art Tucker of the University of Delaware, internationally known for his research into fragrance herbs, has tested several plants labeled as lime balm without finding any significance in the essential oils that provide the flavor and fragrance.
I have also seen offerings of ‘Citronella’ lemon balm. It is said to be mildew resistant and to grow more compactly than common lemon balm. It also is reported to have a higher concentration of citronellal. If true, the crushed leaves may be effective in repelling mosquitoes.
When shopping for herbs, keep your eye out for the most interesting lemon balm for the home gardener. There is a golden variegated version called ‘Aurea’ lemon balm. It’s the same size as classic lemon balm but the leaves have golden edges. This variation is caused by a viral infection. Changes like this have been known to occur in other plants, but the interesting part is that the virus came from tulips. How exactly this happened is anyone’s guess, but now we have variegated lemon balm for the first time.
Although lemon balm is listed as a hardy perennial, that is only true if it has sufficient water and shade during Texas summers. When I first moved to this area, I had trouble finding a spot in my garden to grow lemon balm. So I used my “divide and conquer” technique to discover where it would grow best. I planted one lemon balm in a sheltered but hot area, another in the morning sun next to a sidewalk, and a third in a north facing shaded location.
Within a month I had clear results from my test. The lemon balm in the sheltered area survived but was clearly unhappy. The plant by the sidewalk burned in the searing morning heat. But the one I planted in the north shade garden grew lush and green.
Although lemon balm does not have invasive runners like other members of the mint family, it does propagate easily by seed. If you have good conditions in your garden for this herb, be prepared in spring to find young plants sprouting up in unexpected places, and because it is shallow rooted it may find unlikely places to grow. This summer I discovered some lemon balm growing happily in a dense clump of canna lilies. The only way I’ll be able to get it out is to dig the whole thing up and manually separate the lemon balm from the canna lily tubers.
Lemon balm stems and leaves are not frost hardy. At the first sign of freezing temperatures, make your final harvest cut. Once the thermometer dips below 32 degrees the leaves wither and turn black. Clip the stems down to the ground and wait for spring to revive the plant.
Using and Enjoying
Lemon balm has a wonderful lemon scent and flavor. It can be harvested anytime during the growing season. The leaves can be used fresh in teas and fruit drinks (see below) or dried in potpourris, baths salts, and other aromatic preparations.
The common name of “balm” gives us a clue to the various medicinal uses for this herb. It has been used as a healing herb in bathwater for those with muscle or joint problems. Lemon balm was steeped in ale to be used as an overall restorative. John Parkinson, a seventeenth century herbal writer, said that “the herb without all question is an excellent help to comfort the heart.”
The medicinal uses of lemon balm are not confined to times gone by. Fresh lemon balm has mild sedative properties and is sometimes used to combat nervousness and insomnia. The oil has antibacterial and antiviral properties. A cream formulated with one percent lemon balm oil has been shown effective to accelerate the healing of herpes infections. The herb also has anti-oxidant properties, making it beneficial in skin care.
This spring as you’re planning your garden make room for some lemon balm. Its cheerful green leaves and uplifting scent will be a pleasure for you and your family all year long.
|Lemon Balm Lemonade
Lemon balm is the perfect addition to a tall glass of summer lemonade. It gives you the delicious lemon flavor without setting your teeth on edge. Here’s what you need to make lemon balm lemonade:
Rinse and coarsely chop the lemon balm leaves. Bring the water to a boil and add the chopped lemon balm. Allow to steep 10 to 15 minutes. Strain out the lemon balm and add the sugar, stirring to dissolve.
Add your lemon balm tea to the lemonade. Sweeten to taste and add a quart or more of crushed ice. Have on hand small sprigs of lemon balm to garnish the pitcher and glasses.
You’ll find this combination surprisingly light and refreshing. But you might find it hard to get family members to try it. My strategy is to make a pitcher, put it on the picnic table, and just smile. Soon they’ll be asking what you did to make the lemonade taste so good.
Fresh Lemon Balm Bread
Here’s a quick bread that is well-suited for making and freezing for later. Fresh lemon balm is one of the more “lemon-y” herbs in the garden. Try using it in this moist quick bread that tastes even better the day after it is baked.
Snip enough lemon balm to provide a little more than 1/3 cup of finely chopped leaves. Rinse and pat dry. Oil three mini-loaf pans or one regular loaf pan. To aid in removing the loaves later, place a wide strip of cooking parchment or part of a clean, lightly oiled paper bag across the bottom and up the sides of the pan, long enough to make “handles” for pulling out the loaf.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Combine sugar, butter, finely chopped lemon balm leaves, and eggs. Beat well until smooth.
Add in flour, baking powder, salt, milk and 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Mix just until combined. Do not over-mix. Pour evenly into large loaf pan or mini-pans. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the bread tests done in the center.
While the quick bread is baking, make the sauce to drizzle over the top. Combine 1/2 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons finely chopped lemon balm leaves and 2 tablespoons lemon juice. You should have a sugary sauce that will drizzle easily over the baked bread. If it is too thick, add a little water.
Once the quick bread is removed from the oven, poke numerous holes in the surface with a toothpick or thin skewer. While the quick bread is still warm and in the pan, spoon the lemon balm sauce over the top. Allow the bread to sit in the pan for several hours, coming to room temperature and absorbing the sauce. This quick bread may be served immediately or frozen for later use.