Plant Family: Lamiaceae (mint)
Plant energetics: cooling and drying, aromatic
Parts used: aerial leaves, just before flowering
Plant Properties: relaxing nervine, anti-viral, relaxing diaphoretic, aromatic digestant, antispasmodic
Used for: Anxiety, nervousness, stress, viral infections, bug bites, nervous digestion, fevers, coughs
Plant Preparations: tea, infusion, tincture, essential oil, infused oil, strewing herb, culinary
What’s in a name?
Well, when it comes to Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, quite a lot!
It gets its common name from the fresh lemony scent that emanates from its freshly bruised leaves. Sometimes it’s only referred to as balm, which is defined as something that is soothing, healing or comforting.
The genus name of Melissa comes to us from Greek, meaning ‘honey bee’ or simply ‘honey’. In Greek mythology Melissa was a nymph who shared the wisdom and honey of the bees. Lemon balm is a favorite plant of the bees. Not only does it produce lots of nectar, it has also been used by bee keepers to keep bees from swarming.
The species name, officinalis, let’s us know this plant was once a part of the official US Pharmacopeia.
Just by understanding more about lemon balm’s many names we already know a lot about this plant. But, of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
One of the best things about lemon balm is its crowd-pleasing scent and taste. Most people will drink of this herbal medicine gladly. Sometimes we think that effective medicine needs to make our nose scrunch in disgust, but lemon balm packs a tasty powerful punch.
Lemon balm originally comes to us from the Mediterranean. It’s been used for medicine for thousands of years. Pliny, Hippocrates, Galen, Culpepper and even Shakespeare all spoke of its attributes. There are also records of Thomas Jefferson growing lemon balm at Monticello.
Maude Grieve writes the following in her classic two-volume set A Modern Herbal:
The London Dispensary (1696) says: 'An essence of Balm, given in Canary wine, every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature and prevent baldness.' John Evelyn wrote: 'Balm is sovereign for the brain, strengthening the memory and powerfully chasing away melancholy.
12th century herbalist Saint Hildegarde von Bingen said “Lemon balm contains within it the virtues of a dozen other plants.” As we’ll see, it does have many varied uses.
When I think of lemon balm the first thing that comes to my mind is its calming and relaxing properties. Officially we call this a relaxing nervine, an herb that relaxes, soothes and supports the nervous system. It can be used for anxiety, hysteria, frayed nerves, stress, insomnia, seasonal affective disorder, nervous tension and general feelings of “I’m on my last straw!”.
Older sources list it as being helpful for heart palpitations as well. In more modern times Kiva Rose says, “I personally use it for panic attacks with heart palpitations where the panic is very buzzy feeling.”
Heart palpitations, nervous tension, insomnia, and hyperactivity are all classic indications for lemon balm and these combined describe what some people experience when their thyroid becomes overactive, such as in Grave’s disease. In fact, lemon balm, bugleweed (Lycopus spp.) and motherwort (Leonorus cardiacus) is a classic western formula for a hyperactive thyroid.
In a conversation with Kiva Rose she explains that she likes to use lemon balm when it is specifically indicated:
I especially like it for those wound-up pitta people who are addicted to overworking themselves, or even just addicted to various foods, drugs, activities. It seems to somehow help them pull back from the compulsion that has them frantically attached to self-destructive activities. These people tend to have clear heat signs, complete with an often flushed face and their enthusiasm/interest may come off as a bit on the feverish side.
Lemon balm is a member of the mint family and, like other mints, it has complicated energetics. Thermally it has been classified as both warming and cooling. This is explained partly by understanding different perspectives within the major living herbal traditions today.
Lemon balm has a sour taste. In Ayurveda sour is classified as hot and wet while in Traditional Chinese Medicine sour is thought to be cooling and moistening. In western herbalism sour is generally thought to be cooling.
Matthew Wood explains:
Lemon balm has a sour taste, as its name indicates – it is one of the few sour mints. Like most sour plants, it is cooling and sedative. It combines this property with the typical nerve-calming powers of the mint family to make a strong, but safe and simple sedative. These powers are much more marked when the plant is tinctured fresh. A tincture of fresh melissa should be on the shelf in every household as a general sedative.
In recent years lemon balm has been researched extensively for its antiviral properties, especially in relation to herpes simplex 1 and 2. This is the virus that causes cold sores and genital sores. Lemon balm can both lessen the severity and speed the healing of an acute attack and, when taken regularly, can prevent future outbreaks. That’s a pretty powerful plant! For a thorough listing of scientific studies for this plant go to http://www.greenmedinfo.com and type in Melissa officinalis as your keyword search.
Herbalist Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa recommends lemon balm applied externally to chicken pox eruptions, a virus closely related to herpes simplex.
As a mild spasmodic it can help relieve tension headaches, back pain and other mild pain due to tension. As an aromatic and carminative herb it can relieve stagnant digestion, ease abdominal cramping, and promote the digestive process in general.
It’s been used as a mild emmenagogue to promote late menstruation as well as relieve menstrual cramping.
Lemon balm has even been used for children who are teething to soothe and calm this sometimes painful process.
A couple of years ago I was out hiking in an old growth forest with a group of people in the Pacific Northwest. We were following an overgrown trail covered with giant ferns and other undergrowth. While enjoying the giant trees towering above us, someone inadvertently stepped on a wasp nest. We were quickly surrounded by these powerful stinging beasts and I escaped with a handful of nasty stings. Looking around for plantain I soon found lemon balm instead. I chewed this up, applied it on the wounds and watched in amazement as the pain and swelling was greatly reduced.
According to Maude Grieve lemon balm has a long history of use for wounds and even for venomous stings
The juice of Balm glueth together greene wounds,' and gives the opinion of Pliny and Dioscorides that 'Balm, being leaves steeped in wine, and the wine drunk, and the leaves applied externally, were considered to be a certain cure for the bites of venomous beasts and the stings of scorpions.
As mentioned, lemon balm is in the mint family and has many attributes or identifying features common to this family.
It has square stems and leaves are in an opposite branching pattern.
Lemon balm flowers are white and have the classic “lipped” look of the mint family. It typically flowers from June to September.
This is a perennial plant that is easy to grow. Watch out! It will spread readily in your garden.
If you crush a leaf in your fingers you’ll be introduced to that wonderful lemon scent of lemon balm. In the past it was considered a “strewing herb,” which is an herb hung in the rafters or strewed on the ground to emanate a pleasant scent.
Using lemon balm
When using this plant many people find fresh lemon balm to be the best choice. Freshly dried lemon balm certainly retains many of its virtues, but you’ll most likely find that the older it gets the more it loses its pizazz.
You can prepare this plant in a lot of different ways. One of the simplest ways is to enjoy it as a delicious tea. It can also be tinctured in alcohol, extracted with vinegar, blended with honey and even infused in oil. That oil can then be made into a salve or lip balm for general use or for herpes sores.
An astringent toner can be made by infusing the fresh plant in witch hazel.
Teething youngsters may like to gnaw on a wash cloth that has been soaked in lemon balm tea. Children young and adult will love lemon balm popsicles!
Don’t forget to use lemon balm in the kitchen! It goes well with meats, fish, vegetables, in sauces, sprinkled in green salads, fruit salads, herb butters or simply crushed and added to water; very refreshing for those hot summer months!
You can even use this plant as potpourri.
Lemon balm is considered safe for most people, but of course you should really get to know this plant if you have any special conditions.
It is often said that Lemon balm is contraindicated for people with hypothyroidism. Prior to writing this I asked around the herbal community and several herbalists reported using lemon balm with people who had under-active thyroids and it did not change their thyroid blood tests. If you have an under-active thyroid you probably don’t want to consume this plant in excess.
Lemon balm is a delightful plant that soothes the nerves. Its delicious taste let’s us enjoy it for enjoyment’s sake, but don’t let that fool you. Lemon balm is a powerful herb that can combat viruses in the body and powerfully reduce anxiety.