Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is one of those herbs about which gardeners grumble. I remember my aunt complaining that once you have it in the garden you will never get rid of it as it self-seeds everywhere and can flourish in both shady and bright conditions. People new to herbs really like it because it provides a delicious, easily produced tea when other herbs might not seem so palatable.
At first it appears to be a delicate herb. You are advised to freeze it because the shelf life is so short (around six months or longer if you are growing and drying your own). This may seem frustrating for the dried herb not to last longer until you realise that it lasts exactly the right length of time until fresh leaves are available again.
In most conditions it is perennial and will grow wherever it can. It has been with us in the UK since the ubiquitous Romans brought it to flavour their meals and provide their medicines. The new leaf clusters appear in January or early February depending on the weather. They grow to their most profuse around May or June. Bees love the tiny pink flowers which appear on long stalks over the summer hence the name ‘melissa’ but by the time the flowers appear, you have missed the most potent harvest. If you do harvest the leaves in May there will be a second harvest later in the year as the leaves grow back.
The more you work with this plant, the greater respect you have for it. The subtle lemon flavour of the tea appears less strong than the aroma produced when you crush the leaves to release the volatile oil but is nevertheless bright and appealing. You can extract it using any medium you choose – honey, tincture, vinegar, elixir, liqueur and they will all taste delightful. What you don’t realise is how strong the medicinal ability of plant really is.
Those of you with a scientific bent will want to know what the constituents of lemon balm are. It contains volatile oils (including citronella, geraniol and linalool), polyphenols, tannins, flavonoids (including isoquercetrin), rosmarinic acid and triterpenoids. Its actions include, diaphoretic, carminative, nervine, antispasmodic, antihistamine, antimicrobial, sedative, antiviral, partus praeparator, antioxidant and decongestant.
If we look at its uses for the various systems in the body, the benefits can be described in the following way.
For digestion, lemon balm reduces pain and spasm. It soothes stress-related problems and stimulates the liver and gall bladder.
For circulation it calms nervous palpitations and arrhythmias and reduces hypertension.
For mental and emotional uses it is both sedative and analgesic, reducing tension, anxiety and agitation. It has been found useful in dementia and insomnia. It also relieves headaches, migraine, vertigo and tinnitus. It elevates mood, improves memory and concentration so can be thought of as a helpful herb for students of all ages, especially when faced with stressful situations such as exams or interviews.
With the respiratory system, lemon balm is a relaxant, antimicrobial and decongestant. It helps resolve colds, flu, catarrh, chest infections, coughs and asthma.
With the immune system, lemon balm is a specific antivirus against herpes simplex, mumps and possibly HIV. Its volatile oils are antibacterial, antifungal and antihistamine; helpful in hayfever and allergic rhinitis. Rosmarinic acid is antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and influences complement activity.
With the urinary system, lemon balm is antispasmodic and diuretic.
With the reproductive system, lemon balm is helpful in irregular and painful periods, PMS and menopausal depression. It eases and speeds childbirth when taken prior to and during labour.
Externally, lemon balm can be used as an antiseptic wash for cuts and wounds. Dilute oils of lemon balm can be used in massage for period pains, neuralgia, joint and muscle pain and cold sores. Eardrops can be used for infections.
After such a list of positive attributes, you must also be aware that lemon balm does inhibit the thyroid and most herbalists will advise anyone who suffers with an under-active thyroid not to use this herb. It can be used in the management of hyperthyroidism where the thyroid is over-active.
So, what do I do with lemon balm?
I love to make the tea in summer from fresh leaves. Although the taste is not as strong as the smell, it is pleasant, refreshing and soothing. A tea which makes you sit down while you drink it out in the fresh air, noticing everything around you. I also recommend it, along with chamomile, for those who can’t sleep. It’s second on my list of “Sleep herbs.”
Lemon balm is specific for the herpes virus so can be used to treat shingles. When I was training to be a counsellor, one of my elderly clients developed shingles. Since she was too distraught with the pain to benefit from a counselling session, I gave her some healing and at the next session brought her some lemon balm and St John’s wort oil. I told her make a pot of tea three times a day and to drink half of it and use the other half to soak a flannel with before she tied it around her head covering the red shingles inflammation. She loathed the tea but drank it and used it on her forehead religiously. Her pain was soon gone and she was left without a mark on her skin.
The first time I ever made cough syrup, I added a large amount of lemon balm to the mix of herbs to hide the flavour of some of the less palatable herbs. This was the same time my teenage daughter was having extreme problems at school. We discovered that if she took some cough mixture with her and made it into a warm drink, it helped her with panic attacks and enabled her to stay at school.
I use Non Shaw and Chris Hedley’s method of syrup making – choosing my herb mix then decocting a strong tea for 20minutes. I then strain and measure the liquid then reduce by 7/8ths. I add sugar or honey in the ratio of 1UK pint to 1 lb sugar or honey. If I were making a teenage anxiety syrup again I’d probably use equal parts of lemon balm and hyssop since I’m sure those were the two active ingredients for my daughter.
I make lemon balm tincture from fresh leaves. It’s one of the herbs I add to my stress or bereavement medicines when people need soothing or are in the throes of adrenal meltdown or need holding for a while so they can process their grief.
When I was working in the NHS and was fairly new to herbs, I had a client in his eighties who had lost his wife to a useless GP after caring for her devotedly for ten years or more. He was called to give evidence at the GP’s complaint hearing. I had begged the Primary Care Trust to be careful of the date of the hearing but of course they paid no attention and the hearing was held on her birthday. My client was an old sailor and liked his tot of rum or brandy. I knew the hearing was going to be very difficult for him so I made him some lemon balm brandy and gave it to him while we waited. He said he would have preferred rum but I knew he and his family appreciated the gesture.
Melissa Liqueur (Christina Stapley)
1 75cl bottle of vodka
1/2 cup of lemon balm leaves
1 teaspoon of cloves
1 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp carraway seeds
2 tsps grated lemon rind
3 tsps marjoram leaves
Wash and chop the herb leaves, adding the spirit with the pounded seeds and cloves and grated lemon rind. The cloves should be measured whole, but ground before adding. Leave to steep in a tightly closed jar in a warm dark place, swirling daily for 6-7 weeks. Filter and sweeten to taste with approximately 1/2-1 cup of sugar before labelling in the original bottle and maturing for at least a year.
Christina call this “a soothing liqueur for troubled spirits.” I’ve made it many times as it produces the smoothest liqueur I know. I didn't have any lemons the first time, so I used orange peel. I also reduced the amount of cloves because someone said it tasted like something you'd use for tooth ache!
As lemon balm is a very aromatic plant with lots of volatile oils, it makes a wonderful infused honey.
Sean Donoghue once described using diluted lemon balm elixir as a rehydration mix for overheated festival goers who had drunk too much the night before and spent too much time in their sunlit tents the next morning. I immediately made some. It tastes wonderful and can be used as a nervine, but I haven’t had a chance to try it out for the purpose it was intended.
Lemon balm is always a large component of my “Uplifting elixir” when I wander around my garden on a summer evening and collect all the flowers and leafy parts which can be considered nervines or generally uplifting. They make a delightful elixir to sip in very small quantities when you need to lighten or brighten your mood.
If you have a surfeit of lemon balm and wish to make a soothing scent bag, dry lemon balm and marjoram and mix them together with some orris root so the scent is fixed before decanting into cloth bags. These can then be hung on door handles or taken with you to sniff during the day.
Lemon balm as a “strengthening herb”
One of the properties of lemon balm talked about by herbalists but which hasn’t really made it into books yet is the way it affects other herbs. Using it alongside another herb subtly changes and strengthens the mixture in a way which is not yet fully understood.
David Winston was perhaps the first herbalist I noticed who mentioned this when he talked about using lemon balm with St John’s wort to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I’ve made an effective syrup using the two herbs which people have found helpful but you could also take it as a tea or a combined tincture. (I would not use lemon balm leaves or tincture with SJW standardised extract tablets.)
I once had a student who was taking motherwort for pre-menapausal symptoms. She couldn’t tolerate the motherwort as a tea until she added lemon balm to it, then she said it tasted fine and she found it really helpful.
Herbalists sometimes talk about “the herb they throw into a mixture” for a client on gut instinct, not knowing exactly why they do it but knowing it needs to be there. I think lemon balm is one of those herbs. You think you’re adding it just for the taste but the reality may be some unknown herbal magic to meet a need.
McIntyre, A The Complete Herbal Tutor 2010 Gaia Books Ltd ISBN 9781856753180
Stapley, C Herbcraft Naturally 1994 Heartsease Books ISBN 0 9522336 1 4
Winston, D Differential Treatment of Depression and Anxiety With Botanical Medicines 2006