Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), also known as melissa balm, English balm, garden balm, balm mint, common balm, melissa, sweet balm, and heart’s delight, is an aromatic herb from the mint family (Lamiaceae). It is a native of Europe, Northern Africa and central Asia, and is now cultivated in most temperate and subtropical regions all over the world. In addition to its popularity to be cultivated, this plant grows wild in some locations throughout North America.
Many of us here in Canada and the United States don’t think of lemon balm being an edible wild plant, but after all, this is how it all began thousands of years ago. Even today, lemon balm grows in the wild but chances are a seed from a cultivated garden made it to a wild location thanks to a bird. Regardless of how it has taken root in wild locations, it is there and when you discover a patch it sure is exciting to see it thriving outside of a garden.
Lemon Balm as an Edible
There are many edible uses for lemon balm thanks to its mild lemon flavour. As a seasoning it is extremely versatile and as a beverage, it is favourite to use in the summer months. It is also an important ingredient in herb liqueurs such as Chartreuse and Bénédictine and in spirits such as Carmelite.
Lemon balm’s lemony flavour and aroma are due largely to citral and citronellal, although other phytochemicals, including geraniol (which is rose-scented) and linalool (which is lavender-scented), also contribute to lemon balm’s scent. Although science has shown us many of the chemical constituents in this plant, very little information is out there on the mineral and vitamin content.
Lemon balm can be used in a variety of desserts such as Lemon Balm Cookies. It can be blended into ice cream, used in custards, added to salads and in many beverages such as Lemon Balm Tea or Lemon Balm Spirit.
Lemon balm contains Vitamins B1, B2 and C. It contains calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium and zinc. In addition it contains impressive amounts of trace minerals such as boron, manganese, copper, chromium, molybdenum, selenium, and iron.
Lemon Balm History
- In antiquity, lemon balm was cultivated as a food for bees. Virgil and Pliny reported that due to its strong aroma, lemon balm leaves were rubbed on new beehives to entice the bees. The medical use of lemon balm has a 2000 year old tradition.
- Lemon balm appears in many historic works under various spellings which include: bawme, baume, balme and baulm.
- The ancient Greeks and Romans used it medicinally, and information about this plant was recorded as far back as 300 B.C. in Theophrastus’s Historia Plantarum.
- First century Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, wrote that lemon balm planted near bee hives would encourage bees to return.
- First century Greek physician Dioscorides wrote that lemon balm would promote menstruation, improve gout, remedy toothaches and if mixed with wine, could be used to treat scorpion stings and dog bites.
- The plant likely originated in Southern Europe and was brought to Spain by the Moors in the 7th century; by the Middle Ages it was cultivated and used throughout Europe.
- In the Capitularies of Charlemagne the order was given for lemon balm to be planted in every cloister garden.
- Eleventh century Persian physician and philosopher Avicenna was an early advocate for the use of lemon balm in treating depression.
- In her work “Physica”, Saint Hildegard Von Bingen described “melissa” as a herb which has the combined effect of fifteen herbs. She recommended taking it to strengthen the heart and the spleen. Hildegard also stated that by drinking a beverage of this plant will bring cheerfulness and joy into your life.
- English herbalists John Gerard (1545-1612) and Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) shared
Dioscorides’ beliefs on many of lemon balm’s uses. Gerard wrote that, “Bawme drunken in wine is good against the bitings of venomous beasts, comforts the heart, and driveth away all melancholy and
sadness.” Gerard also stated that the juice of lemon balm would “glueth together green wounds.”
- Culpepper believed the herb would treat boils, cure melancholy and was good for the heart, mind, liver,
spleen, digestion and fainting.
- According to the London Dispensary (1696) lemon balm in wine could prevent baldness.
- Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) believed that lemon balm was an “elixir of life”
and would increase strength and lengthen life.
- There are a few legends surrounding lemon balm, health and longevity, and royalty. Both King Charles V of France and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V are said to have consumed lemon balm beverages to promote health.
- Members of the Carmelites created a concoction known as Carmelite water or Eau de Melisse de Carmes, which was believed to promote longevity and improve headaches and neuralgia. This Carmelite water was created at some point between the 14th and 17th centuries (exact time is unknown).
The primary ingredient in Carmelite water was lemon balm, but it also contained lemon peel, nutmeg and angelica root.
- In Europe, lemon balm was used as a strewing herb, and was placed on floors to freshen rooms. It was also placed among church pews up to the nineteenth century.
- Oil from the herb was also used historically to polish furniture.
- Early colonists brought lemon balm to North America and used it to make tea, make potpourri and to attract bees for honey production.
- Lemon balm was also one of the plants grown at Thomas Jefferson’s garden and farm
- Lemon Balm leaves were often (and still are) used as bath additives and in herb pillows.
Lemon Balm Medicinal Overview
Lemon balm is approved by the German Commission E for nervous sleep disorders and ‘functional gastrointestinal complaints’. The European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy recommends the external use of lemon balm for cold sores and the internal use for tenseness, restlessness, irritability, digestive disorders and minor spasms. Lemon balm is used in homeopathic remedies as well as in preparations which include: teas/infusions, tinctures, syrups, capsules, powders, poultices, salves, steams, fomentations, oil, and dried extracts.
There are studies that indicate the cytotoxic effect of lemon balm extract on breast cancer and colon carcinoma. Chemical composition of lemon balm is diverse and includes phenolic acids, tannins, flavonoids, terpenes (triterpenes, monoterpenes, and sesquiterpenes), and volatile compounds. The main active ingredients comprise volatile compounds: neral, geranial, citronellal, and geraniol, phenolic compounds: luteolin, caffeic acid, hesperidin, naringin, coumarinic acid, and rosmarinic acid, and triterpenes: oleanolic and ursolic acid.
Lemon balm has a lot of beneficial chemical constituents which include:
- citral a
- citral b
- other monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes
- triterpenylic acid
- bitter principles
It also contains the following flavonoids:
Not only does lemon balm have an impressive background from traditional medicine, but, according to the latest studies, it is effective in cardiovascular disease, by decreasing the values of total lipid concentration, improving HDL (high density lipoprotein) values, and lowering the hepatic synthesis of cholesterol.
Some of lemon balm’s actions include:
Perhaps it is best known for its ability to cure cold sores. Applying a simple to make lip balm has proven to reduce the symptoms of cold sores, heal the sores faster, and prevent infections from spreading.
Wild or cultivated, lemon balm is definitely an herb we all should consider incorporating into our daily life.