By Steph Zabel
Herbalist, Ethnobotanist and Educator
Lemon Balm is a delightful and cheerful little plant. With uplifting, lemon-scented leaves and tiny sweet white flowers, it is a pleasant addition to any garden or kitchen apothecary. I have never found anyone who does not enjoy lemon balm tea, so I call it a “gateway herb.” Even the most wary newcomers to herbs fall in love with its scent and taste, and then become open to trying many more new and unusual herbs…!
Both bees and humans find this plant irresistibly attractive. In fact its Latin name Melissa refers to “bees” — these insects will flock to it whenever it is in bloom.
Lemon balm is originally from southern Europe but is now widely cultivated around the world. Like many mint family plants it is a very prolific grower. If you have limited garden space, you may want to place it in a container so that it does not take over the whole garden. (However, I don’t think that that would be such a terrible thing if it did happen...)
For centuries this aromatic plant has been used to raise the spirits, comfort the heart, and banish depression and irritability. Its sweet, citrusy leaves yield a delicious tea that is equally good as a cold tea on a hot summer day, or as a warm tea on a cold winter day.
It was once believed that if taken regularly lemon balm would promote longevity — perhaps due in part to its calming effect on the central nervous system. Lemon balm is a wonderfully relaxing, and soothing herb, useful before bedtime to help fall into a peaceful sleep. It is also a fantastically supportive herb during times of stress and anxiety. Personally, I have found lemon balm to be a true “balm” whenever I have felt nervous or stressed about something. I once had a big event that involved public speaking and being filmed, which caused me to feel quite nervous. But, beforehand I took a few sips of my lemon balm cordial (recipe below) and within minutes my nerves quieted down, and the butterflies in my stomach disappeared. I was able to relax and just be myself. What a gift during anxious times!
Beyond its wonderful effect on the nerves, lemon balm contains anti-viral properties – this can prove useful for people who suffer from cold sore outbreaks, shingles, colds or flu. It’s definitely one I like to keep handy during the winter months not only for its ability to contain and weaken viruses, but also for its uplifting effect which is beneficial for mild depression and seasonal affective disorder.
Lemon balm is a very gentle herb that can be used by nearly anyone — children love it, stressed-out people love it, and anyone in the midst of wintertime loves it!
HOW TO USE:
To make tea of lemon balm use up to 1/2 Tblsp. of the dried herb per cup of hot water. Let that steep, covered, for 10-15 minutes.
If you have fresh lemon balm on hand an extremely delicious way to use it is to chop up a small handful of the aromatic leaves. Put these leaves in a small jar then cover them completely with local honey. Let this mixture steep for at least a week or two, and then use it as is (or strain out the herbs.) This is a delight in teas, on toast, or on top of desserts.
Finally, one of my favorite and most recommended ways to use lemon balm is below — gather your fresh lemon balm leaves now to make this cordial and you will be thanking your summer self all winter long!..
Lemon Balm Cordial
Harvest a large bunch of fresh and aromatic lemon balm stems. Look for stems that are healthy and vibrant looking. If they are in flower, that is OK, but if they have already finished flowering skip those stems. You are searching for lemon balm in its peak and at its most aromatic phase.
Strip the leaves from the stalks and chop them up as finely as possible. Place your fresh leaves in a glass jar of any size - I usually use a pint-sized or quart-sized jar. Fill the jar almost to the top with the lemon balm, leaving a little bit of room at the top.
Cover completely with brandy (any good tasting brandy will do). Stir to remove any air bubbles and make sure all the leaves are completely submerged. Then cap tightly and place a label on the jar with its contents and date.
Place the jar somewhere where you will see it so you can give it a shake every so often. Shaking helps the plant material from settling too much and makes sure that the brandy is touching (and extracting) as much surface area of the leaves as possible.
After 4-6 weeks strain out the lemon balm through a fine sieve (using cheesecloth is also a good idea). The resulting liquid should be aromatic and lemon-y. Measure this liquid. To this amount add 1/4 the amount of raw honey. (If you have 1 cup of lemon balm infused brandy, add 1/4 cup honey). Stir together well. Pour into a dark bottle. At this point I usually let the honey and brandy infuse together for another week or so, but if you have trouble waiting this long, go ahead and start using it!
Take this lemon balm cordial by the spoonful as a winter pick-me-up, or sip on it as an after dinner drink. It is divine!
Steph Zabel is an herbalist and educator based in Somerville, MA who helps urban dwellers connect with the plant world. She teaches herbal classes, is available for individual consultations, and is also the founder of HERBSTALK, a community herbal conference. Learn more about her work at: www.flowerfolkherbs.com and www.herbstalk.org.
This blog post — Lemon Balm: The Gateway Herb / Melissa officinalis — is for general health information only. This blog post is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. Users of this Web site should not rely on information provided on this Web site for their own health problems. Any questions regarding your own health should be addressed to your own physician or other healthcare provider.