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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Lemon Balm, our Sweet Melissa

Choosing what plants to add to an herb garden is a personal decision and there are many reasons why people get passionate about herbs. Some folks enjoy the history, mythology and stories behind these plants. Others choose plants suitable for use in the kitchen. The pursuit of natural beauty has always been popular and before the cosmetics industry took off people relied on plants for their personal care routine. Before we had the convenience of the local pharmacy, it was absolutely necessary to know what plants are medicinal and how to use them. There  are those who plant for environmental purposes to help out the bees and other insect pollinators. It is fun to watch people at a nursery. It is predictable that the first reaction people usually have to a plant is to smell it. Many herbs are very aromatic, therefore it is a delight for the senses to just wander around from plant to plant and be taken in by their individual smells.

Lemon Balm, Melissa officinalis, has all of the above, therefore a must have for the herb garden.
The genus name of Melissa comes to us from the Greek, meaning 'honey bee' or 'honey'. The story goes that there was a nympth called Melissa who shared the wisdom of the bees and in return the bees shared their honey with her. Due to its high production of nectar, lemon balm is a favorite plant of the bees. Bee keepers intentionally plant lemon balm to attract the bees.

The distinct lemony smell of the crushed leaves give us all sorts of avenues for use in food preparation. It goes well with meats, fish, vegetables, sauces, fresh in both greens and fruit salads as well as a fine addition to flavored water.
If you like flavored honey, fill a pint mason jar half full with the fresh leaves, top with honey, cap with a lid and let sit for about two weeks before straining. Flip the jar upside down and the next day right side up as a non-messy way to stir. Do this daily till ready to strain.
For a flavored salad vinegar, fill your jar with leaves but this time add apple cider vinegar. Cap with a plastic cap, metal will corrode, and let sit in a dark place for a few weeks. Shake once in a while.
You can taste test both the honey and the vinegar as the days pass to see if you want it stronger.

Infuse the fresh leaves in witch hazel and you have a refreshing facial toner. Make a strong pot of tea and use as a refreshing hair rinse.

Lemon balm leaves can be used in potpourri but realize that once dried it does eventually lose the strong scent.
Help your little ones sleep by making dream pillows. Cut fabric squares and sew three sides with the printed sides together. Turn the fabric right side out again. Stuff with the dried leaves and cotton batting for softness and sew the fourth side to close.

The species name, officinalis, tells us that lemon balm was once a part of the official U.S. Pharmacopeia. Originally coming to us from the Mediterranean, lemon balm has a history of being medicinally used by Pliny, Hippocrates, Galen, Culpepper, and Shakespeare.

The simplest form of utilizing herbs as medicine is as a therapeutic hot cup of tea. Lemon balm tea doesn't have the 'green' bitter taste you may expect with herbal teas, plus the scent of lemon makes it a pleasure just to sit there and inhale the steam. When it comes to depression, insomnia, anxiety, indigestion and headaches, chamomile is usually the first to come to mind, but lemon balm should also be on the top of the list.

Primarily used to calm and relax the nervous system, lemon balm tea with a touch of honey is a wonderful remedy for tired, cranky children and even very safe for pregnant women. Possessing a high concentration of essential oils with antispasmodic properties, lemon balm can be a great aid to help relieve those belly aches and gas pains.
Another great way to use lemon balm for children is to soak a wash cloth in the tea and let the child suck and chew on the cloth to ease teething pain.
Make popsicles out of the tea and see if your children take to them.
Bee stings and cold sores can be relieved by applying a cloth soaked in lemon balm tea or use a wet tea bag.

This plant gets even more amazing. According to James A. Duke, "The Green Pharmacy", lemon balm is among the leaders of plants containing anti-viral properties.
Compounds in the herb known as polyphenols work to calm herpes outbreaks.
herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1),herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2), and varicella-zoster virus.
H. simplex comes in two forms, cold sores and genital herpes. This virus is a cousin to H. zoster which causes the skin lesions of shingles.The first symptoms usually occur four to seven days after initial exposure. There is a burning, tingling itch followed by pimple type bumps that turn into painful blisters. The formation of scabs and healing begins about a week later. Some people suffer once and aren't bothered again, while in others triggers like stress can bring on another flare.

In Duke's description of how the polyphenols work, the body's cells have receptors that viruses latch on to when they're trying to take over the cells. These polyphenol compounds can latch on to the cells' viral receptor sites. By taking up those spaces, the viruses are prevented from attaching to the cells. The spread of infection is halted.
In addition, all mints contain antioxidant vitamins and selenium, which strengthen the immune system. Free radicals are mopped up, thus protecting the body's cells.

Lemon Balm, St. Johnswort Salve
Application of a salve made from both Lemon Balm and St. Johnswort can help with the healing of the painful blisters on lips, waist, genitals, wherever needed. The virus may have to run its course but the trip may be a bit easier with help from our herbal allies.

Lemon balm is in the mint family. Characteristics of this family of plants is the square stems, oval leaves growing opposite each other, and the ease in which it propagates. I don't think lemon balm spreads as rapidly as other mints since it is more of a clump, but it does pop up elsewhere. If you want to plant it where you prefer, simply dig up a piece and replant. The roots are shallow and easy to dig. The flowers are white with the lipped look typical of the mint family. The flowering period is from June to September.

Lemon balm in flower
To harvest lemon balm it is best to do it in May and June, before it flowers. The plant will contain the most essential oils if picked before it starts to flower. Try to beat the days heat and pick in the morning hours. If you want to cut the entire plant at once, cut it two inches above the ground and hang the whole thing in an airy, shady location. If it doesn't dry quickly it'll turn black and need to be discarded. Once dried, strip off the leaves and store in airtight jars. Another option is to snip the fresh leaves into pieces and make ice cubes.

Whether you desire a children's garden, an aromatic garden, a medicinal garden, a culinary garden, a pollinator garden, a historical garden, natural beauty garden or a combination of all of these, Lemon Balm would be right at home.