To learn what ailments lemon balm treats, please see the first article in this series. This article is about the history, planting and harvesting of lemon balm.
Lemon balm is known by many names including English balm, common balm and heart’s delight. The plant’s Greek name is Melissa Officinalis. Melissa translates into “bee” and officinalis translates into “used in medicine.” The Greeks and the Romans used this herb as medicine. Interestingly, lemon balm has compounds similar to what is in the honeybee’s Nasonov glands that the bees use to communicate about location and food. Honeybee phermone contains nerolic acid that is similar to other compounds in lemon balm
The first known recording of lemon balm was in a work written by Theophrastus called Historia Plantarum in 300 B.C. Gerard and Pliny the Elder both encouraged planting lemon balm Pliny the Elder was “delighted by this herb above all others.” He also knew that it would stop blood flow.
First century physician, Dioscarides, believed lemon balm would treat ailments such as gout and toothaches as well as bites and stings. Eleventh century philosopher and physician, Avicenna, believed the herb would treat depression. Avicenna wrote over two hundred works including forty on medicine. His works were mandatory reading in schools in Europe until the seventeenth century.
Some scholars credit Charlemagne for the balm’s spread across Europe. He supposedly believed the plant was valuable to the health of the population, so ordered it to be planted in abundance in all monastery gardens. Monasteries served as hospitals during the Renaissance period so lemon balm became convenient to use as a treatment. However, it was also used for other purposes. It was especially used for bathing water and perfume.
One perfume worth mentioning because of it’s high demand was known as Carmelite water named after the Carmelite friars who received a patent for the recipe by King Louis XIV. Although the complete recipe was kept secret, it was known to contain lemon balm and other herbs. Many men in the Royal French Court relied on Carmelite water to help their nervous disorders (that were not uncommon in the Royal French Court.) Cardinal Richelieu supposedly kept a vial of Carmelite water on his person at all times. The friars also made liquors out of lemon balm.
Shakespeare mentions lemon balm in many of his plays, and in The Merry Wives of Windsor, it is used to polish furniture.
Lemon balm is native to southern Europe but has been naturalized all over the world and will grow in most climates. It is a perennial in mild climates and can be grown indoors in places where hard freezes occur. Lemon balm is a perfect beginner gardener’s plant as grows in abundance fairly easily without much work. A common misconception is that lemon balm spreads by underground runners as most mint family plants do, when, in fact, it spreads through seeds.
Seeds can be placed in the ground in spring or fall with only a light soil covering. Spacing is not a major issue with this plant. In hotter places, such as zones seven through nine, the plant needs less sun or morning sun. However, lemon balm is sturdy and adaptable. It will grown in sun or shade. Depending on location, it needs neither in extreme. In other words, in hotter climates it needs some shade, and in colder climates, it needs some sun.
To avoid overgrowth, keep the plant pruned so it does not go to seed. Started from seed, the plant will be two or three feet tall by the end of the season. A variety called Compacta spreads less easily. Lemon balm does not need fertilizer if it is growing in the ground. Grown inside or in planters, liquid organic fertilizer given quarterly should suffice. Some gardeners argue that grown inside, lemon balm has less scent and flavor.
It does not need to be pruned back if more plants are desired. However, it is a good idea to thin the plant to encourage air circulation, but this is optional. Mulching is also encouraged because the plant should remain fairly moist. It is best to water early in the morning and, like all plants, it should be on a regular watering schedule. Lemon balm may need more water in hotter climates or during droughts. The soil should be well drained. Once established, it does not need to be watered daily unless it is growing in extreme heat or sun.
It is difficult to over harvest lemon balm. The leaves can be harvested any time, as needed. To harvest the leaves, break or cut (with scissors) the stem of the leaf at the base of the plant. It is a good idea to do this during the peak of summer as this is a thinning method. To thin, about a third of the leaves can be harvested from one plant at any given time. In the warmer climates, it is possible to get a spring, fall and summer harvest from lemon balm.They can be cut all the way to the ground and will still re-grow.