Family: Lamiaceae (Mint)
Latin Name: Melissa officinalis
Common Names: The many names of lemon balm demonstrate how valuable this plant has been to various cultures; Balm, Bee Balm, English Balm, Garden Balm, Sweet Balm, Common Balm, Mountain Balm, Balm Mint, Sweet Mary, Melissa, Melissa Balm, Melissa Folium, Melissa Officinalis, Lemon Melissa, Bee's Leaf, Honey Plant, Lemon Fragrance, Heart's Delight, Cure-All, Dropsy Plant
Parts Used: Dried leaves, or fresh in season
Energy & Flavours: Sour, spicy, cool and slightly relaxing
Biochemical Constituents: Rich in essential oils (citral, citronellal, geraniol, and linalol), bitter principles, flavones, acids, tannins, resin
- diaphoretic (inducing perspiration)
- calmative (having a sedative effect)
- antispasmodic (relieves spasm of involuntary muscle)
- antiviral (effective against viruses)
- antiseptic (prevents the growth of disease-causing microorganisms)
- carminative (relieving flatulence)
- stomachic (stimulates digestion)
- anti-depressant (alleviates depression)
- hypotensive (lowering the blood pressure)
- aromatic (containing aromatic compounds)
- nervine (calms the nerves)
Medicinal Preparations: food, tincture, tea/infusion, hydrosol, essential oil, syrups, baths/foot baths, capsules, pills, powders, poultices, topical salves/creams, steams, fomentations, oil, liquid and dried extracts.
Habitat & Growing Conditions: Originating in the Middle East and North Africa, it moved to Southern Europe in the 1500's and eventually to America in the 1700's. Lemon Balm is now grown all over the world in herb gardens, to attract bees, to be turned into medicine, cosmetics, and even to polish furniture.
The plant grows up to 2 feet high, and in the spring and summer clusters of small yellow flowers grow where the leave meet the stem.
If you rub the leaves between your fingers, they will smell tart and sweet just like lemons.
The History of Lemon Balm: The use of lemon balm can be dated to over 2000 years ago through the Greeks and the Romans. It is mentioned by the Greek polymath Theophrastus in his Historia Plantarum, written in c.300 BC, as "honey-leaf" (Source). Ancient Greeks believed that bees would never abandon their hive if lemon balm grew nearby, and the aromatic herb was rubbed all over bee hives to make them feel welcome. The Greeks also believed lemon balm was a promoter of long life and rumour has it the last prince of Wales, Prince Llewellyn, drank melissa tea every day of his 108 year life!
In medieval times, lemon balm was used as a 'strewing' herb and scattered over floors so that a pleasant aroma was released as people walked over them. Strewing herbs were often used as insecticides or disinfectants, warding off pests and diseases during times when bathing was not as popular as it is today.
The ancient Arabs used it to treat heart disorders, in the middle ages a sprig of lemon balm was said to staunch the blood of a sword wound and to help relieve ear and toothache, pregnancy sickness, and prevent baldness.
Medicinal Uses: One of my favourite American herbalists, Juliet Blankespoor of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, says that lemon balm "is a brightening nervine remedy for melancholy, mild anxiety, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and mild depression. With relaxing, antispasmodic, and gently sedative qualities, it’s also indicated for tension headaches, stress-related insomnia, panic attacks accompanied by heart palpitations, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and overexcitement or restlessness in children."
She goes on to say that "like many members of the mint family, lemon balm extends its aid as a carminative herb and digestive remedy. Its high concentration of essential oils has an antispasmodic and calming effect on dyspepsia, gas, nervous indigestion, nausea, heartburn, and the pains and cramping associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)." (Source)
Studies have shown that lemon balm helps reduce anxiety and promoted sleep. In one double-blind placebo-controlled study, 18 healthy volunteers received 2 doses of lemon balm extract or placebo for 7 days. Those having received the 600mg dose of lemon balm reported increased mood and significant increased calmness and alertness.
Studies also suggest that topical ointments containing lemon balm help heal cold sores, significantly improving redness and swelling. The antiviral activity found in lemon balm make it a popular internal and topical remedy for herpes, venereal warts, chickenpox, shingles, and mononucleosis (mono).
Lemon balm oil has a high degree of antibacterial activity, and there is evidence to suggest that lemon balm can help treat indigestion. (Source)
While studies on this are still inconclusive, there is very strong evidence to suggest that lemon balm is effective in easing symptoms of Alzheimer's and dementia! (Source)
Food Uses: Lemon balm can be used in place of lemon peel in recipes and to add flavour to soups, sauces, vinegars and seafood.
You can even add lemon balm to you favourite sugar cookie recipe for a delicious lemony tea cookie!
Adding a few fresh lemon balm leaves to a salad or bowl of mixed fresh fruit tastes amazing, and lemon balm can be added in to make great herb butter. To quote Juliet Blankespoor again, "lemon balm is one of my favorite nutritive kitchen herbs; its fresh and tender shoots can be added to salsas, jams, liquors, ice cream, sorbet, smoothies, pestos, finishing salts, and infused vinegars. I often chop up a handful and combine it with mint and flower petals as a topping for tacos. Likewise, the fresh leaves can be minced and tossed into fruit salads, tabouleh, and leafy green salads. Lemon balm leaves stirred into lentils or bean dishes add a nice flavor and improve their digestibility."
Alas, perhaps the simplest and most refreshing way to enjoy lemon balm is making a batch of fresh iced tea during the hot summer months. Simply pluck some leaves from the plant and steep as you would to make hot tea. Strain, sweeten, and then pop it in the fridge until chilled. Delicious! Our family has also made kid-approved lemon balm popsicles sweetened with honey as a summertime treat.
Click here for recipes for lemon balm cookies, lemon balm bread, lemon balm vinaigrette and lemon balm pesto!
Cosmetic Uses: Renowned for its antiviral properties and soothing benefits to skin conditions, lemon balm makes a wonderful choice for eczema, psoriasis, shingles, diaper rash, and sensitive skin. If used as a face toner, lemon balm hydrosol works wonders for normal to oily skin types and helps to balance the skin and cleanse pores for those who suffer with acne. It is also particularly suited to mature skin types, or for those who suffer with skin rashes and irritations, sunburn, herpes simplex sores, poison ivy, or poison oak. There are many creams and salves on the market due to lemon balm's popularity as a treatment for these conditions.
Products we make featuring Lemon Balm: Lemon Balm is the final ingredient in our best selling Sleepy Time Tea especially formulated to help the whole family wind down and get ready for bed!
Safety Class: 1 (Herbs that can be safely consumed when used appropriately and that have a history of safe traditional use).
Interaction Class: A (Herbs for which no clinically relevant interactions are expected).
Pregnancy and Lactation: No information on the safety of lemon balm in pregnancy or lactation was identified in the scientific or traditional literature. Although this review did not identify any concerns for use while pregnant or nursing, safety has not been conclusively established.
Sources: American Herbal Product's Association Botanical Safety Handbook Second Edition, The Modern Herbal Dispensatory by Thomas Easley and Steven Horne, The Way of Herbs by Michael Tierra, Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman, Mount Sinai Health Library, Hamilton University The Science of Culture and Food