Lemon balm is dear to me because it’s the first plant I ever cultivated from seed. (It’s so easy!) In my traveling youth, it was also the first plant I ever brought with me from farm to farm.
The herb also happens to be my namesake in scientific name: Melissa officinalis. Named for Melissa, the Greek god of honeybees, lemon balm’s tiny flowers are beloved by honeybees and other smaller pollinators, as well as herbalists and tea drinkers alike!
Preparing Lemon Balm
Lemon balm is known as a rare essential oil due to its difficulty of extraction. The organic compounds, which bring both its smells and flavors, readily fall off the plant with both heat and mechanical disturbance.
I make a three- to four-times infused alcohol extraction. You do this by covering freshly cut leaves, stems and flowering parts as tightly packed as possible with 95 percent alcohol. I let that steep for at least a week or two, straining and then repacking the strained extraction with more plant material. Repeating this another time or two will get you a stronger extraction effective in lower doses.
Extraction is a fairly laborious project, so I more often use my lemon balm immediately upon harvest, whether drying or freshly infusing.
Lemon Balm Uses
Lemon balm has so many uses, it’s easy to understand why the herb has been popular for so long and why people might carry it from place to place. It has no contraindications and is safe for children. Its daily use over time can help with chronic anxiety. And a strong dose will clear a headache almost immediately.
Lemon balm can help relax our whole system without sedating, making things like menstrual cramps and stress more manageable.
It has antiviral qualities and has been found specific to some herpes. Some friends of mine have successfully used it topically for cold sores and internally to prevent outbreaks. Although an alcohol preparation applied to an open sore is not pleasant, it has been shown to restore the myelin sheath of our nerves. A handful of plants have this ability, and lemon balm is probably the most abundant of them all.
Growing Lemon Balm
If you have anyone even remotely interested in herbs in your life, they’re likely to have some lemon balm plants in their garden. And if they do, they’re also likely to have extra as it spreads quickly in the landscape.
It loves a sunny location and can thrive in both dry and wet conditions. It will sow itself and form clumping patches outward from the original plant. It takes so little care to flourish that many have been known to thin it from their herb beds or landscaping.
To cultivate for bulk, young plants can be trimmed like any mint, removing the top three to four sets of leaves to make your first infusion. Then, while that infusion steeps (for a few weeks or more), the plant will grow bushier, making more medicine for you to harvest in the weeks’ time that your extraction steeps.
The lemony flavor appeals to almost every palate, making it an easy tea to serve company and anyone wary of plant tea, including children. It can soothe a cold, a fever and other common everyday ailments! It brings a dose of sunny disposition during long winter nights.
Make lemon balm a staple in your cupboard or medicine cabinet.