By Dr. Susan Hamilton
Back in 1653, English botanist Nicholas Culpeper wrote that lemon balm “causeth the mind and heart to become merry.” What better endorsement for a plant?
Apparently the International Herb Association agrees, bestowing the title of “2007 Herb of the Year” on this versatile and easy-to-grow plant, too often overlooked by modern gardeners.
I discovered lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) through my plant evaluation research at the University of Tennessee. I first discovered the wonderful garden merits of this plant in 1984 and have been growing it in my home garden ever since. Lemon balm is not the most beautiful plant, but I think the serrated leaves are pretty. I can’t resist grabbing one each time I pass to smell the lovely lemon scent.
Lemon balm grows into a bush about 18 inches around. As a member of the mint family, it is a durable perennial that should last in your garden indefinitely.
A sunny spot in moist, but well-drained, soil is ideal, but I’ve seen it tolerate drought really well – so you don’t have to coddle it. I like to use it in my garden and in containers around my patio area where it is easy to reach. A quick touch and the foliage releases its wonderful lemony scent.
Small white or pale yellow flower clusters attract bees and butterflies. Mine rarely flowers, however, because I cut it so often. I harvest my plants at least three times each summer and still have more than I can use from just one plant.
Lemon balm can be harvested 2 or 3 inches from the base of the plant, and each time it is cut it comes back with vigor! I like to use my lemon balm fresh, but you can dry cuttings and keep your extra harvest. Simply gather cuttings into groups of five to six stems, tie them together and hang the bunches in a warm, airy location. When dry, strip off the leaves and store them in a covered container. Use as needed.
What to do with the leaves? They’re great in cooking. Use lemon balm in place of lemon peel in recipes and to flavor soups, sauces, vinegars and seafood. Or add it to your favorite sugar cookie dough for a pretty tea cookie. I especially like to toss a few fresh leaves into a salad or a bowl of mixed fresh fruit or to use it in a vinaigrette for marinades and salads. It also makes great herb butter.
A native of southern Europe and northern Africa, lemon balm is rich in antioxidants. It’s a popular ingredient in anti-aging products, dietary supplements, tinctures and ointments. It’s one of the main ingredients in liqueurs such as the French Benedictine and Chartreuse, and it is also a common ingredient in herb teas. A handful of fresh lemon balm and mint makes an excellent hot or iced tea when honey is added.