Description & Taxonomy
A member of the Lamiaceae (mint) family, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) belongs to a genus which includes five species of perennial herbs native to Europe, central Asia and Iran. Although Melissa officinalis originated primarily in Southern Europe, it is now naturalized around the world, from North America to New Zealand (70). Lemon balm occurs naturally in sandy and scrubby areas (97, 104) but has also been reported to grow on damp wasteland, at elevations ranging from sea level to the mountains (15).
Over the years, many common names have been associated with M. officinalis, including balm, English balm, garden balm, balmmint, common balm, melissa, sweet balm, heart’s delight and honey plant. Although M. officinalis has sometimes been called bee balm due to its traditional use for attracting honeybee swarms, it should not be confused with Monarda didyma, which also bears this common name.
There are two subspecies, M. officinalis subsp. officinalis, the common cultivated lemon balm; and M. officinalis subsp. altissima, naturalized in New Zealand and known as bush balm. Although M. o. subsp. officinalis is known for it’s lemon fragrance, the scent of M. o. subsp. altissima is sometimes described as fruity, herbal or powdery, but is actually often “scentless to fetid” (97).
Physically, lemon balm is an erect herbaceous perennial with opposite pairs of toothed, ovate leaves growing on square, branching stems (11, 15, 49, 81, 97) and may have a bushy appearance (81, 92). Its height can range from just under 8 inches to nearly 5 feet (49, 92, 97), with a width of 12 to 24 inches (11, 15, 104). Leaves may be smooth or somewhat hairy (97). The plant’s fruit is a tiny nutlet (36, 49, 97). Lemon balm’s small flowers are 2-lipped, grow in whorled (15, 49) clusters, and may be pale yellow, white, pinkish (15, 92, 97) and infrequently purplish or bluish (92).
Chemistry & Nutrition
Although over 100 chemicals have been identified in Melissa officinalis (30), the main components of the essential oil are citral (neral and geranial), citronellal, linalool, geraniol and β-caryophyllene-oxide (1, 90).
Lemon balm’s lemony flavor 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 (84).
Lemon balm is high in flavonoids, which can have an antioxidant effect (28 in 10). Other phytochemicals in lemon balm which may provide antioxidant activity include phenolic acids, terpenes, rosmarinic acid and caffeic acids (83 in 10). Lemon balm also contains tannins, which are astringent and contribute to lemon balm’s antiviral effects, and eugenol acetate, which is believed to be one of the phytochemicals responsible for lemon balm’s reported antispasmodic effect (66). (See the Medicinal Uses section for additional information.)
Lemon balm had historic use as an attractor of honeybees. (See History & Folklore section.) Research has shown that the plant contains several compounds found in the worker honeybee’s Nasonov gland, which helps bees communicate about food sources and hive location (17). Both contain citral and geraniol, and honeybee pheromone contains nerolic acid, which is similar to the nerol found in Melissa officinalis (17).
Lemon balm essential oil is extracted from the leaves and flowering tops by steam distillation (65). Oil yield is typically less than 0.5 ml oil/kg herb (70). The essential oil available commercially may be adulterated (65, 66) with lemon, lemongrass or citronella (11, 65).
Although the essential oil content of plants of the same species can vary due to environmental conditions, harvest time and stage of growth (1), for Melissa officinalis, oil content is reportedly highest in the upper third of the plant (14).
Lemon balm essential oil, oleoresin and natural extractives are considered GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) (99, 100). The essential oil is GRAS at concentrations of 1-60 ppm (97). The leaf extract is GRAS at 2000-5000 ppm (97), and up to 0.5% can be included as a flavoring in baked goods according to U.S. GRAS regulations (14).
Melissa officinalis contains both Vitamin C and Thiamin (a B vitamin). One study detected an average of 254 mg vitamin C per 100 ml of solution (37). According to the same study, drying and storing lemon balm for over 12 weeks resulted in a 50% reduction in vitamin C content, and deep freezing for this same time period resulted in a 25% reduction in vitamin C. The Thiamin content was significantly lower, on average only 76.4 mcg per 100 ml of solution (37).
Although lemon balm is generally considered non-toxic, be aware that the plant/leaves may cause contact dermatitis in susceptible individuals (65, 84).
History & Folklore
Lemon balm’s herbal use dates back over 2000 years (54, 72). The ancient Greeks and Romans used it medicinally, and information about the herb was recorded as far back as 300 B.C. in Theophrastus’s Historia Plantarum (60 in 54).
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 (60 in 54).
The genus name, Melissa, means “bee” in Greek, and the plant was likely named for its reputed ability to attract bees (92, 97). First century Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, wrote that lemon balm planted near bee hives would encourage bees to return (38), and Gerard later claimed that rubbing the leaves on a hive would “causeth the Bees to keep together and causeth others to come unto them” (38).
The specific epithet, officinalis, means “used in medicine” (93) indicating that the species had historic medicinal uses (87). The common name is derived from the Greek word balsamon, which means balsam, or “an oily, sweet-smelling resin” (27). Lemon balm appears in historic works under various spellings including bawme, baume, balme and baulm (91).
Early herbalists and writers praised lemon balm for its medicinal and uplifting qualities. Eleventh century Persian physician and philosopher Avicenna was an early advocate for the use of lemon balm in treating depression/melancholy (27). According to an old Arabian proverb, “Balm makes the heart merry and joyful.” (80)
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 (44). Later 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.” (38). He advised 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 (22). According to the London Dispensary (1696) lemon balm in wine could even prevent baldness (42). Some sources claim that lemon balm was once believed to staunch blood flow from a sword wound (23, 64) but according to Pliny and Gerard, the plant in question was not actually common lemon balm (Melissa sp.), but a type of balm known as Smiths Bawme, Iron-wort or Iewes All-heale, which Gerard classified as Herba indiaca (or Herba indaica) (38).
Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) believed that lemon balm was an “elixir of life” and would increase strength and lengthen life (11, 92, 97). 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 (42, 87).
Members of the Carmelite religious order created a concoction known as Carmelite water or Eau de Melisse de Carmes, which was believed to promote longevity and improve headaches and neuralgia (20, 42, 87). (Some sources date the creation of Carmelite water to the seventeenth century (6, 87) and others to the fourteenth century (58). The primary ingredient in Carmelite water was lemon balm, but it also contained lemon peel, nutmeg and angelica root (42). A version known as Klostergau Melissengeist has been sold in Germany in recent times (87).
In Europe, lemon balm was used as a strewing herb (26, 73, 80), and was tossed on floors to freshen rooms. It was strewn amongst church pews up to the nineteenth century (41). Oil from the herb was also used historically to polish furniture (20).
In the Victorian language of flowers, lemon balm could be added to a tussie mussie or floral bouquet to signify “social intercourse,” ”pleasant company of friends,” “memories,” “a cure,” and “don’t misuse me” (39).
Lemon balm arrived in North America with the early colonists, who used it to make potpourri and tea (26), to attract honeybees for honey production, and as a substitute for lemons in jams and jellies (20). Lemon balm was also one of the plants grown at Thomas Jefferson’s garden and farm (50).
Lemon balm has been associated with the feminine, the moon and water (23, 64), and was considered a sacred herb in the temple of the Ancient Roman goddess Diana (92). According to magical folklore, the herb has powers of healing, success and love, and can be made into healing incense and sachets or carried to help the bearer find love (23).
Culpeper associated lemon balm with the planet Jupiter and the astrological constellation Cancer (22). Some herbalists believe lemon balm is also beneficial for the astrological signs Sagittarius (82) and Aquarius (2).
Literature & Art
Literature Deciphering exactly which references in classic and ancient texts refer to lemon balm can be difficult. The word balm and its variations (baume, bawme, balme, bawme, and baulm) were used to describe aromatic and medicinal resins from various trees (bearing the common name balsam), anointing and embalming oils and preparations, healing ointments, and pleasant fragrances (91). Although balm is mentioned in the Bible, the plant in question is not lemon balm, but is believed to be Commiphora opobalsamum (75, 105), Commiphora gileadensis (110) or Balanites aegyptiaca (105). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest usage of “bawme” in reference to lemon balm was in Promptorium parvulorum sive clericorum, lexicon Anglo-Latin circa 1440: “Bawme, herbe… melissa” (91).
Nevertheless, scholars believe that the “baum” mentioned in the Roman poet Virgil's Georgics, written around 30 B.C.E, is actually lemon balm (103): “Bruis'd baum, and vulgar cerinth spread around,/ And ring the tinkling brass, and sacred cymbals sound:/ They'll settle on the medicated seats,/ and hide them in the chambers' last retreats.” - Volume 1, Book IV (103)
It is also widely accepted that lemon balm is the “balm” of Homer's Odyssey (91):
...A vine did all the hollow cave embrace, Still green, yet still ripe bunches gave it grace. Four fountains, one against another, pour'd
Their silver streams; and meadows all enflower'd With sweet balm-gentle, and blue violets hid, That deck'd the soft breasts of each fragrant mead. - The Odyssey, Book V (47)
Many believe that Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor also refers to lemon balm in descriptions of “balm” as a strewing herb (16 in 104) or furniture polish (20, 85, 87):
Anne Page (as the Fairy Queen) proclaims:
About, about! Search Windsor castle, elves, within and out: Strew good luck, ouphs, on every sacred room, That it may stand till the perpetual doom, In state as wholesome as in state ’tis fit, Worthy the owner, and the owner it. The several chairs of order look you scour With juice of balm and every precious flower: Each fair instalment, coat, and several crest, With loyal blazon, ever more be blest! - (Merry Wives of Windsor, Act V, Scene V (21)
Lemon balm was also mentioned briefly in Henry David Thoreau's Journals: "In the garden of the Wellfleet Oysterman was yellow dock, lemon balm, hyssop, gill-go-over-the-ground, mouse-ear, chickweed, etc." (3)
Although lemon balm does not appear in any well-known art works, it is depicted in various botanical illustrations and herbals, including Gerard's Herbal, Elizabeth Blackwell's A Curious Herbal, and Basil Besler's Hortus Eystettensis (1613). In addition, the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation lists two lemon balm watercolors in their online catalogue: “Melissa officinalis (lemon balm)” by Marie Felicity Angel and “Basil (Ocimum basilicum), Balm (Melissa): Balm, Variegated Basil, Lettuce-leaved Basil, Basil with Oregano-shaped leaves” by Marilena Pistoia (48).
Lemon balm is probably one of the easiest herbs to grow and is ideal for beginners. This perennial grows and spreads so readily, in fact, that some gardeners consider it a weed. According to Mark Langan, a common misconception about lemon balm is that it spreads like mint, but mint spreads by underground runners while lemon balm spreads via seed (62). For Madalene Hill, even though reseeding in the garden can be a problem, lemon balm is an essential herb garden plant that “no herb grower should be without” (45).
There are many ways to propagate lemon balm, but many of HSA's gardening experts find that the species' easy self-seeding makes planned propagation unnecessary (59, 67, 88, 101). If starting new plants from seed, however, remember that lemon balm germinates best uncovered (67) or covered lightly with vermiculite (62) and will germinate in 5-9 days if temperature is 65-70º F (62). The species, Melissa officinalis 'Quedlinburger Niederliegende,' and M. o. 'All Gold' (Golden) will come true to type if isolated (62). For M. o. 'Aurea', the variegated cultivar, however, Andy Van Hevelingen suggests propagating by division or softwood cuttings since it will not retain variegation when grown from seed (101).
If propagating from cuttings, Andy takes 3-4 inch softwood tip cuttings in spring. He removes 2/3 of the leaves and pinches out the growing tip to prevent wilting. Andy recommends dipping in rooting hormone powder and placing in sterile medium amended with coarse sterile sand to provide support and moisture retention. The cuttings should be watered immediately and kept out of direct sun, and will root in 3-4 weeks (101).
Mark Langan takes 1¼ to 1½-inch tip cuttings and roots them in sterile potting soil over a heat table set at 70-75ºF. Using this method, Mark has found that cuttings will root in about a week (62). Note that bottom heat can decrease rooting time (101) but heat is not required to induce rooting (12).
Cuttings can be taken in spring or fall. Although spring cuttings can be taken from flowering stems, fall cuttings should come from tips at the base of the crown which don't have flowers (62). Mark uses a razor blade for all of his cuttings, rather than scissors. A razor blade makes a clean cut, allows water to absorb quickly and prevents wilting (62).
Deni Bown suggests treating lemon balm “like any hardy perennial, digging up a clump when dormant and dividing into small pieces, either for replanting in the ground or in pots” (12). Her favorite propagation method, however, is “to take stem cuttings in the spring... choosing basal stems that have the odd root already or vestigial roots” (12).
11 Lemon balm can also be propagated by layering (5, 67). Simply lay down a branch to the ground and place a stone over it (5).
Lemon balm is typically hardy to Zone 4 (7, 49) or 5 (87, 97) but can survive to Zone 3 if mulched (62). In Southern California, lemon balm can be grown outdoors year-round (67).
Lemon balm can be grown in a variety of soils but does best in moist but well-drained loam with a pH between 4.5 and 7.6 (97). Mulching in preparation for winter can help protect your plants' roots (67). A mulch like sawdust or straw can also help control weeds (70).
If transplanting from plants started indoors, harden off cuttings in a bright, windy area, or use a fan to toughen up and condition the plants (62). Plants can be moved outside about 1 month prior to the frostfree date if they have been hardened off (62).
For commercial production, plants should be spaced about 1 foot apart, with 5 feet between rows (97). Home growers may have a little more flexibility and can space plants anywhere from 1 to 2 feet apart (12, 24, 78, 104), or just do what Ellen Scannell does, not worry about spacing and let plants “duke it out” (88). Melissa officinalis 'Compacta,' the dwarf cultivar, reaches only about 6 inches high and can be spaced more closely together (12). Seed can be sown directly in the ground in spring or early fall, covered with only a small amount of soil (24).
Lemon balm makes a nice container plant. Madalene Hill recommends growing it in a 15-18-inch container accompanied by summer annuals and herbs like basil, dill or coriander (45). Container plants may need to be divided each fall to avoid becoming root-bound (67). See Water and Fertilizer sections for more information pertaining to container growing.
Light & Temperature
Lemon balm can be grown in full sun or partial shade (87, 92), but the golden and variegated cultivars may scorch with too much sun (87). Ellen Scannell suggests morning sun with some afternoon shade (88). In Newberg, Oregon, Andrew Van Hevelingen prefers full sun and open exposure for lemon balm cultivation (101). Susan Belsinger, who gardens in Maryland, and Madalene Hill of Round Top, Texas have the most success planting out of direct sun (5, 45). Full sun turns leaves pale green and variegated varieties lose most of their coloring. For Madalene, lemon balm is one of the few herbs that will grow well in high shade and she finds that shade improves lemon balm's flavor (45). Mark Langan has had the opposite experience gardening in Huron, Ohio. He has found that the more shade his plants get, the less flavorful they are (62).
If all of this seems too complicated, don't worry. In the words of Mark Langan, lemon balm is “very adaptable to almost any soil or sunlight condition” (62).
Water & Drainage
New plants should be watered immediately after transplanting (5). Madalene Hill has found that in her Round Top, Texas, garden, established plants in-ground or in large containers can be watered once a week (45). Mark Langan, on the other hand, waters his potted plants daily in summer, but his general rule for lemon balm (especially in-ground plants) is to water only if the plant is wilted in a drought situation (62). Frequent watering may be necessary, however, if plants are grown in full sun and high temperatures (101).
Although lemon balm likes moist soils (97), good drainage is also important (45, 97). Mulching will aid drainage and protect from hot weather (especially important if you garden in the South) (45). Planting on a hillside can also promote good drainage (45).
Lemon balm is such a prolific and vigorous grower it rarely needs fertilizer (5). Preparing soil with leaf humus or compost is usually sufficient (5, 62). Adding calcium in the form of lime or gypsum every 3-4 years can also be beneficial (62). Container plants, however, may benefit from organic liquid fertilizer four times per year (67).
Advice for Beginners
Lemon balm is such an easy plant to grow, Rex Talbert advises beginners to “stand back” after sowing seeds (94). Dr. Art Tucker cautions that the plant can be invasive (96). Mark Langan suggests preventing lemon balm from going to seed if you want to avoid spreading (62). Another option is to choose the sterile variety, Melissa officinalis 'Compacta' (61). Susan Belsinger says beginning gardeners should remember that a plant that starts out in a 4-inch pot will be 1½ to 2-feet tall and wide by the end of the season. Put the plant where it will have ample room and cut it back as needed (5). (See Pruning & Harvesting section for additional information). Maintaining good air circulation can be challenging since lemon balm can spread so rapidly (5). Susan Belsinger started with two lemon balm plants near the foundation of her house and now has about 30 plants. If plants become too crowded, simply thin to the desired spacing (5). Lorraine Kiefer suggests growing lemon balm under trees; “the natural leaf cover in winter acts as a mulch and becomes compost” (59).
If grown as a potted indoor plant, lemon balm will need 5 hours of direct sunlight or 14-16 hours of artificial light per day (92). Most of HSA's experts don't recommend growing lemon balm indoors, however. According to Madalene Hill, although lemon balm will grow indoors in a sunny window, the flavor won't be as intense. It's best to think of lemon balm as a seasonal, summer plant (45).
Pests & Diseases
Lemon balm does not often fall prey to pests and diseases, but there are a few to watch out for. Indoors and in the greenhouse, aphids and spider mites can infest lemon balm, but hard washing with a hose (or in the sink) can help remedy the problem (62). Mark Langan also suggests dusting undersides of leaves with wettable sulfur, waiting 24 hours, and then washing off. This can be especially helpful in the Southwest where sulfur can help acidify the soil (62).
European red mite and two-spotted mite can cause leaf bronzing and stunted growth (70). Whitefly can be a problem in the greenhouse, especially with poor ventilation and inadequate sunlight (94). Rex Talbert has a creative solution to combat whitefly, spraying a board with a yellow color that attracts whiteflies, covering it with a sticky substance and placing the board near the plants (94).
One disease associated with lemon balm is not necessarily a concern, but may actually be related to a desirable ornamental characteristic of one lemon balm variety. A 2005 article in Plant Pathology reported an association between variegation in lemon balm and the presence of Tulip Virus X (TVX) (98).
Less benevolent diseases of lemon balm include powdery mildew and Septoria leaf spot. Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that gives leaves a whitish powdery appearance and can be a problem in areas with hot, humid days and cool nights (12, 31). This disease can be controlled by providing good air circulation and regular harvesting/pruning (88, 104). To avoid mildew, try growing the cultivar M. officinalis ‘Citronella,’ which is mildew-resistant (12).
Septoria leaf spot, a fungus that can infect lemon balm, causes dark brown or black 1-2mm angular leaf spots. Wet leaves, warm temperatures and high humidity can predispose plants to this disease, but it can be combated with proper spacing (for good air circulation), disinfecting pots, crop rotation and watering earlier in the day if overhead watering is necessary (8).
Pests can be combated with beneficial insects, insecticidal soaps, traps and manual removal (24). Mark Langan suggests planting in well-drained, fertile soil to prevent disease. Using this method, Mark doesn’t have a problem with pests and diseases in the landscape (62). Soil-borne diseases can be prevented with crop rotation. Drip irrigating or “watering early in the day” can help prevent diseases that affect damp leaves (24).
Pruning & Harvesting
There are many options when it comes to pruning and harvesting lemon balm. Leaves can be harvested as needed. Susan Belsinger suggests thinning plants in the summer to improve air circulation. This is particularly important during hot and humid weather. To thin plants, simply snap a stem off from the base. If plant has 30 stems, about 10 should be removed. The thinned stems can then be hung to dry (5).
In addition to thinning, Susan cuts her plants nearly to ground level for the three major harvests in spring, summer and fall. Susan has found that she can get new growth even in cool weather after the plant has bloomed and leaves are turning yellowish-green (5). In Southern California, Theresa Loe cuts her lemon balm plants to the ground in late fall or early winter but they never become dormant and she can harvest year-round (67).
Plants may brown around the edges due to excess heat, cold, dryness or high winds (45). Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay trim 1 or 2 inches all around the plant to remove browning and finds that in just a few days new growth will appear. For plants that are very large, try trimming one side one week and the other side the following week. If the plant has been subjected to more extreme conditions like hurricane winds or drought, they would cut it back to 4 or 5 inches in late winter or early spring(45).
It’s nearly impossible to over-prune/over-harvest lemon balm (61). According to Lorraine Keifer, in midsummer, a large patch can even be pruned with a trimmer/edger or a mower set on high. She suggests watering and fertilizing following this aggressive pruning if soil is poor or plants look “sparse” (59). Mark Langan has also noticed that lemon balm can be mowed to the ground and will rebound, but for Mark a safe rule is to remove up to half of the plant’s total height (62).
Be sure to prune flowering stalks before the plant goes to seed to keep lemon balm from spreading (101). Andrew Van Hevelingen also suggests dividing three-year-old plants and replanting, since lemon balm plants can “die in the middle and creep outwards like French tarragon” (101).
Essential oil content is reportedly highest in the top one-third of the plant (76), and one study that took place in the Ebro-Delta of Spain found that harvesting in the morning during August and September produced the best essential oil content (1).
Many herb enthusiasts believe flavor is best prior to flowering (12, 45, 81, 87, 88) but for essential oil production, plants are harvested at flowering (92). If harvesting for essential oil production, Mark Langan suggests cutting plants to the ground in spring as the first 5-25% of flowers open. Mark points out that seed production, not flowering, affects oil production and leaf flavor (62). According to Susan Belsinger, if the plant is cut back after flowering, new leaves that appear will have the flavor of spring growth (5).
Preserving & Storing
The flavor of fresh lemon balm is superior to dried (5, 45, 62, 87, 88), but depending on the season and your location, drying lemon balm leaves can provide access to the herb year round.
Lemon balm can be dried by hanging in bunches, then stripping off leaves (12, 59, 67). It can also be dried on trays (45, 104) and should be dried in a dark place (101, 104) with good air circulation (58, 101). Dry within 2 days or leaves may turn black (87, 104).
Dried leaves can be stored for 1 year in glass containers in a dark, dry place (43, 67). They can also be stored in the refrigerator for a few days or in double bagged food storage plastic bags in the freezer for the short term (45).
For fresh flavor, even in winter, Susan Belsinger prefers freezing chopped lemon balm leaves in vegetable oil. The lemon balm and oil combination can be added to baked goods (5). Another option is to freeze whole or chopped leaves and water in ice cube trays (62).
Lemon balm is a surprisingly versatile culinary herb which can be used to flavor many different types of dishes, from beverages, to appetizers, main courses and desserts. It can be added to salads, sandwiches, soups, stews, butters, cheeses, fish, stuffings for poultry, pork and veal, egg dishes, vegetables, fruit cups, jams, jellies, sauces, marinades, dressings, herb vinegar, wine, punch, cakes, custards, tarts, sorbets, ice cream, cookies, crepes, pies and cheesecakes (5, 67, 92).
Lemon balm complements many fruits, including honeydew, cantaloupe, pineapple, apples and pears (5). For fruit salads, try mixing fresh lemon balm with pineapple sage (81). For vinaigrettes or salad mixes, lemon balm combines well with parsley or basil. It can also be included in fines herbes mixtures with dill, tarragon, parsley, chervil and chives. In springtime, combine lemon balm with fennel and thyme (5).
For desserts, Susan Belsinger recommends mixing lemon balm with sweet woodruff, and for scones she likes the combination of lemon balm and ginger (5). For dessert recipes, leaves can be steeped in hot cream or milk (26). Susan Belsinger also likes to infuse leaves in milk for 5 minutes, strain out leaves and add 1 tsp maple syrup. This is a delicious, relaxing bedtime drink (5). As a main course, Deni Bown cooks leaves inside whole trout for "the perfect combination" (12). A quick and easy recipe that Susan likes is lemon balm oatmeal. Simply add a handful of leaves to the boiling water that will be used to make oatmeal, and strain out leaves after steeping (5).
For culinary purposes, fresh leaves are most flavorful (67). Chopped, fresh leaves can be added to baked goods but whole leaves can be used in many other types of dishes (5). Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay prefer to use lemon balm leaves in cold foods because they have found that heat will reduce lemon balm's flavor (45). If you will be adding to cooked foods, Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay, along with Susan Belsinger, recommend adding leaves near the end of cooking (6).
One of the most popular ways to use lemon balm is in tea. Leaves can be combined with Earl Grey, green or black tea (58) and a handful can be added to a pitcher of iced tea (6). Fresh leaves are best for tea, but dried leaves can also be used. Lemon balm leaves can also be mixed with rose petals and orange blossoms (13) or raspberry leaves, strawberry leaves, rose hips, alfalfa, red clover or scented basils for tea (63). Rex Talbert prefers cold lemon balm tea to hot because he's observed that the hot tea can have a bitter taste. For cold tea he likes to mix lemon balm with China tea and spearmint (94).
Lemon balm is also wonderful in other summer drinks (88). Leaves can be combined with cold fruit juice (63), carbonated soda, fruit punch and wine (84). A few tablespoons of lemon balm distillate can add refreshing flavor to ice water or iced tea (51). Susan Belsinger describes lemon balm as "a wonderful summertime herb...the essence of summer..." (5).
Susan Belsinger makes lemon balm syrups which she stores in the freezer in Mason jars; the syrup retains a true lemon balm flavor and can be used to make soda, tea, muffins, scones and a variety of other treats (5). Lemon balm leaves can also be used to flavor sugar by mixing chopped leaves with sugar and storing for at least 6 weeks. Lemon balm sugar can be added to baked goods or tea (13).
Lemon balm flowers also have culinary use. They can be candied (92) or used to garnish fruit salad, beverages or rice (5). Also try adding them to whipping cream with sugar and fresh peaches or strawberries (5).
In the commercial food industry, lemon balm oil and extract are used to flavor alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, candy, baked goods, gelatin, pudding and frozen dairy desserts (66, 92). Lemon balm is an ingredient in liqueurs like Benedictine and Chartreuse (11, 87, 92).
Lemon balm, which is also known by the pharmacopoeial name Melissae folium, has a long history of medicinal use for a variety of ailments (see History & Folklore section). The plant was believed to remedy so many different conditions that it was once considered “an herbal cure-all” (14). Although it has been used primarily for depression/anxiety, insomnia and dyspepsia, the long list of maladies for which lemon balm has traditionally been used also include bronchitis, asthma (69), coughs, fever, menstrual problems, hypertension, migraines, shock, vertigo (29, 65), eczema/skin problems (65), gout (42), insect bites/stings (12), snake bites and skin infections (29). Some even believed the plant would remedy baldness (29, 42).
Lemon balm has a long-standing reputation as a calming and uplifting herb, and recent research has begun to confirm this traditional use. The hydroalcoholic extract exhibited sedative effects on the central nervous system in animal studies (9, 14). A study published in 2004 in Psychosomatic Medicine involving human volunteers showed that a 600 mg dose of standardized M. officinalis extract improved mood, calmness and alertness, and a 300 mg dose increased the subjects’ mathematical processing speed (57). In a study published in 2006 in Phytotherapy Research a 600 mg dose of a standardized product containing Melissa officinalis and Valeriana officinalis reduced anxiety in human subjects, (although an 1800 mg dose actually increased anxiety) (56).
Historically, lemon balm was believed to sharpen memory (9, 14, 18), and a 2002 study demonstrated that while lemon balm did not improve memory measures like word recall and spatial and numeric memory, it did improve attention (19, 54). However, a study published in 2003 showed that 1600 mg of dried leaf improved memory and calmness. The authors suggest that the effect on mood and cognitive performance may make lemon balm useful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (55).
Another study addressing the use of lemon balm for Alzheimer’s Disease was published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 2006. The authors of this study concluded that Melissa officinalis is one of several plants which may be useful in the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease due to its ability to inhibit acetylcholinesterase and its antioxidant activity (35). (Melissa officinalis essential oil, ethanolic extract and decoction were all examined, with ethanolic extract showing the most inhibition, but note that other plants in this study showed higher levels of inhibition than lemon balm.)
Lemon balm has documented antiviral effects. Some studies involving human subjects have shown that topical preparations of lemon balm are effective against herpes simplex (9, 14, 29), and standardized topical preparations including lemon balm extract are currently sold in the U.S. and Europe (14). Phytopharmica Cold Sore Relief® (formerly Herpalieve®) is an over-the-counter lemon balm cold sore and fever blister remedy which is available in the U.S. Lemon balm extract has also demonstrated antiviral properties against HIV-1 (109 in 14), and aqueous extracts are reportedly antiviral against the influenza virus (14).
Studies have documented the positive effects of herbal combinations containing lemon balm on infant colic (86), irritable bowel syndrome (102), colitis, dyspepsia and sleep quality, but they have involved products that combined multiple herbs rather than lemon balm alone, so the exact role of lemon balm in these studies is unknown (14).
Numerous studies have reported lemon balm essential oil’s antibacterial and antifungal effects (14, 74, 77). A study published in 2005 found that a methanol extract of Melissa officinalis leaves was “weakly active” in vitro against Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium that causes ulcers and other gastro-intestinal disorders (68). A hydro-alcoholic extract of lemon balm showed antibacterial activity against Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella choleraesuis, and the resistant bacteria Klebsiella pneumoniae (77). The essential oil is also reportedly antibacterial against Mycobacterium phlei and Streptococcus hemolytica (66) and has shown antimicrobial activity against some mold and yeasts, as well as microbes that cause fungal skin infections in humans and animals (4, 74).
According to a 2004 study, the essential oil also has antioxidant properties (74). The authors of this study, state that “consumption of food produced with natural essential oils or aromatic plant extracts (functional foods) is expected to prevent the risk of free radical-dependent diseases” (74).
A study published in 2005 showed that an aqueous extract of dried Melissa officinalis leaves decreased serum cholesterol and lipid levels in Swiss albino rats and reduced elevation of enzymes that are markers for liver damage (10). The essential oil is also antihistamine and antispasmodic (66), and has demonstrated anti-tumor/anticancer effects in vitro (25).
Lemon balm is approved by the German Commission E for nervous sleep disorders and “functional gastrointestinal complaints” (9). ESCOP (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 (9). Lemon balm is also used in Homeopathic medicine for menstrual irregularities (43). Medicinal lemon balm preparations include teas/ infusions, tinctures, syrups, baths/foot baths, capsules, pills, powders, poultices, salves, steams, fomentations, oil (95), and liquid and dried extracts (66).
The Botanical Safety Handbook gives lemon balm a “class 1” rating, assigned to “herbs which can be safely consumed when used appropriately,” and Dr. James Duke categorizes lemon balm as “safer than coffee,” (+++), which is his highest safety rating (29).
Lemon balm does have some contraindications and possible side effects, however. Although the PDR for Herbal Medicines lists no side effects or precautions with proper dosages (43), side effects that have been reported in the literature include palpitations, nausea, diarrhea, headache and EEG changes (14). Lemon balm may also increase intraocular pressure and impact glaucoma (14). In laboratory research, lemon balm freeze-dried aqueous extracts have been shown to interfere with thyroid hormones and, more specifically, inhibit the effect of TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) (46). For this reason, lemon balm may reduce the overstimulation of the thyroid associated with Grave’s disease (hyperthyroidism) (29) but can also interfere with thyroid medications. Other medications that lemon balm may reportedly interact with include alcohol, sedatives, barbiturates, glaucoma medications, and SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) (14) which are used to treat depression and other psychiatric conditions. Dosages of 900 mg of lemon balm have been shown to reduce alertness and may impair the ability to drive or operate heavy machinery (54).
Some sources question the safety of lemon balm for pregnant and lactating women, due to insufficient research (107 in 14), possible emmenagogic properties, and the reported ability of lemon balm to inhibit thyroid hormones and gonadotropic hormones (which act on the ovaries/testis) (14). Other herbalists recommend the herb during pregnancy (40, 46). In her book, Herbal Healing for Women, Rosemary Gladstar lists lemon balm as one of her “favorite herbs for pregnancy” and includes it in her recipe for Pregnancy Tea (40). Likewise, herbalist David Hoffmann recommends lemon balm for morning sickness (46). The Botanical Safety Handbook, PDR for Herbal Medicines and Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs do not list any warnings regarding lemon balm for pregnant or lactating women (9, 43, 71). Keep in mind, however, that pregnant women and individuals with existing medical conditions should seek the advice of a health care provider before using this or any medicinal herb.
* Disclaimer: Information is provided as an educational service. The Herb Society of America can not advise, recommend, or prescribe herbs for medicinal use. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Despite its reputation as a weed, lemon balm can be used in many different ways in the garden. It can be grown in a variety of theme gardens, including lemon, tea, culinary, medicinal, potpourri and bee gardens (88). Its scent, flavor, aroma and ease of cultivation make it an ideal plant for children’s gardens (95).
Grow lemon balm as an ornamental in mixed borders (15) or perennial borders (62). Plant with roses or short-term perennials for greenery, or on steep banks in rock gardens (81). Mark Langan combines lemon balm with part-shade perennials including daffodils, sweet woodruff, campanulas, foxglove, hellebores and primrose. He recommends Melissa officinalis ‘All Gold’ for the landscape because it holds its color and appearance well. Leaves will turn lime green in the summer but return to gold in the fall (62). The variegated lemon balm also provides attractive color contrast for the landscape (101). Lorraine Kiefer likes to use lemon balm as a natural ground cover under trees (59). Susan Belsinger suggests growing under tall, weepy, woody shrubs like beautyberry bushes. If planting in an herb garden, Susan suggests placing lemon balm in the center surrounded by smaller plants, or in the back (5).
Karen Langan has found that lemon balm can be planted to “beat out other noxious weeds” (61). Deni Bown suggests planting the golden forms with blue-flowered herbs like borage, or brightly-colored nasturtiums. Melissa officinalis 'All Gold' and M. o. 'Aurea' can also add color to containers or “brighten a shady corner” (12). The species work well in wildflower areas, hedgerows, woodland and waterside. Avoid planting near other plants with similar foliage (12). Deni plants her lemon balm near chives, sorrel and Scots lovage for a nice contrast. The dwarf variety, M. o. 'Compacta,' makes a good edging plant and is ideal for mixed herb planters (12). Although planting with mints may sometimes be problematic (12), Susan Belsinger grows her lemon balm along the side of her house with Hillary’s Sweet lemon mint and has found that they thrive together and don’t cross pollinate (5). Susan also recommends planting with garlic chives or Astilbe spp. (5).
Lemon balm has been used historically as an insect repellent. The crushed leaves can reportedly be rubbed on the skin to repel insects (72), and some northern European forms with high citronellal content may repel mosquitoes (97). According to a study published in 2005, the essential oil of Melissa officinalis applied topically was also toxic to the larvae of Spodoptera littoralis (79), the cotton leafworm which attacks a variety of agricultural crops around the world (33).
In addition to combating pests, lemon balm may have potential as a weed inhibiting agent (53). A study published in 2003 in Scientia Horticulturae reported that lemon balm shoot powder suppressed germination of Amaranthus caudatus, Digitaria sanguinalis and Lactuca sativa (lettuce). The authors of this study believe that although the powder would need to be tested on weeds in “field conditions,” it could potentially reduce the use of commercial herbicides (53).
Soil Erosion Control
Lemon balm can also help prevent soil erosion if grown on slopes or banks (81).
Lemon balm essential oil may have a future in food preservation. It has been shown to stop the growth of the food spoilage yeasts Torulasopra delbrueckii, Zygosaccharomyces bailii, Pichia membranifaciens, Dekkera anomala and Yarrowia lipolytica (4).
Lemon balm has been used as a furniture polish since Victorian times. The essential oil and leaves can be used to polish wood furniture (20, 26, 67, 92). HSA member Karen England has tried using lemon balm leaves to polish oak furniture and found that they make “the furniture shiny and the room fragrant” (32).
According to Cindy Jones, lemon balm distillate can be especially helpful when traveling. It can be sprayed in a room to help remove odors, and sprayed on sheets to “help promote sleep and reduce stress” (51).
Bees and Honey
Lemon balm has a long-standing reputation as a bee plant, and has been used to attract bees to hives since ancient times (See History & Folklore and Chemistry sections). Today, lemon balm is one of the plants used in honey production (92, 106).
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