Growing Lemon Mint...And De-Mystifying its Many Names
May 01, 2018
We swear we're not out to bore you. We've written a lot about plants in the mint family lately, but that's because each variety has its own unique fragrance and flavor. We're actually here to befuddle you, as you'll find out in just a few paragraphs.
Lemon mint (Monarda citriodora), not to be completely obvious, has a mild citrus-ey taste favored by bakers, chefs, and mixologists. Lemon mint adds flavor to iced and hot teas, and may even reduce the amount of sugar—or that nasty fake stuff—required to make it sunshine sweet.
Like its cousins, lemon mint is so easy to grow, even a gardener with a gangrenous black thumb, hanging by just a thin strand of tissue, could pull it off. (Growing lemon mint, that is; you'll want a doctor to deal with that other business.)
Lemon Mint By Any Other Name...Is a Pain in the Butt
Lemon mint wins the Confusing Name Game, roots down. This far into the blog, we've already screwed up three times; Monarda citriodora is also called "bee balm," which causes many gardeners and herbalists to mix lemon mint with lemon balm (Melissa officinalis).
To avoid further confusion, or maybe just become immune to bewilderment, you'll want to be aware of lemon mint's other names:
- Horsemint (we have no idea where the "horse" part came from)
- Lemon horsemint (still no clue)
- Plains horsemint (sigh.)
- Purple lemon mint (ok, we totally get this one)
- Lemon Bee Balm (STOP IT!)
We interrupt this blog post to bring you a great booze-related tip: Use lemon mint instead of regular mint in your mojito recipe to kick things up a notch. You're welcome. Now, back to the chaos.
Aaand...then there's lime mint (Mentha citrata), a cultivar of Mentha aquatica. Water-loving M. Citrada is often called (you guessed it) lemon mint.
How's that drink? Relaxing? Just when you think you have things figured out, get a load of this: Monarda citriodora is only one plant of many that go by the name "bee balm". Take a deep breath and pour another frosty glass. Remember to double-check your mint seed order and herbal remedy and ask for lemon balm by its Latin name, and you should be fine.
Oh, and by the way. Even though lemon mint is a New World plant, its genus is named for Nicholas Monardes (1493-1588), a Spaniard who rocked the Seville botany and medical scene, but who never set foot on North American soil.
Lemon Mint's Backstory & Herbal Uses
Lemon mint's native range includes northern Mexico and southern/central United States. Native North Americans (we're including Mexican aboriginals, of course) used lemon mint as a natural insect repellent; citronellol is one of the plant's compounds valued by aromatherapists.
All plants nicknamed "bee balm" are useful in treating insect stings (oops, somebody forgot their insect repellent).
Lemon mint tea treated throat and oral infections, and poultices disinfected skin lesions and minor wounds. It was also reported to reduce fevers and headaches.
At least one contemporary study shows that phenolic monoterpenes found in lemon mint serve as antioxidants and antimicrobials. Another study focuses on phenolic monoterpenes' role in the fight against fungus in other plants. Is it possible that a solution of lemon mint, when sprayed on leaf mildew or damaged plants, might solve gardeners' frustrations? It's definitely worth a shot.
The dried herb can be infused in oil (cold oil infusion) and later made into salves and lotions to soothe skin. It is also beneficial when added to facial steams. I would combine it with chamomile and lavender in a facial steam to assist with acne or oily skin. Hill Country Herbalist
North American natives also used Monarda citriodora to season meat and fowl, and today it's widely used in a number of recipes and fragrances. Its leaves and flowers add a citrus scent to potpourris and make wonderful fresh-cut flowers.
Lemon mint is, interestingly, a popular addition to shredded tobacco among hookah enthusiasts.
Lemon Mint In the Garden
Like most mints in the Monarda branch of the Lamiaceae family, it thrives in poor, dry, rocky soils and requires little coddling. It's a hardy self-seeding annual that sometimes performs as a biennial, and its white, pink or purple flowers are among the showiest of the Lamiaceae. Rigid square stems support narrow, spear-shaped and serrated dark green leaves as long as 2.5 inches.
Crushed lemon mint leaves and flowers give off a pleasant, lemony fragrance.
USDA zones: 2-11
Plant size: Mature lemon balm plants grow 12-30" high with a spread of about 7" to 12".
Planting location: Choose a spot in full sun to partial shade. Lemon mint does well in garden margins, or anywhere it's likely to be neglected. Go ahead. Put Baby in the corner.
Soil preferences: Lemon mint has a wide pH tolerance, but appreciates a little added crushed limestone. Mixing aged compost to compacted soils will improve drainage and give young plants a healthy start, but additional fertilization may cause "legginess".
Moisture: Once established, Monarda citriodora needs little irrigation. Too much water during the growing season can cause issues with powdery mildew, but moist, well-drained soils will extend lemon mint's flowering well into fall.
Companion plants: Members of the Monarda family are gregarious, though radishes tend to disagree.
Pests and Diseases: Lemon mint's citronella scent tends to repel many pests, but its showy, fragrant flowers are irresistible to many pollinating insects and beneficial wasps.
Starting Lemon Mint Seeds
Seed depth: Sow Monarda citriodora seeds no deeper than 1/16".
Starting indoors: Lemon mint seeds, when started indoors, benefit from about 6-8 weeks of cold stratification before planting in peat pots 6-8 weeks prior to last spring frost.
Germination usually occurs within 10-30 days, depending upon ideal temperatures (65-70°F) and conditions.
Sow seeds outdoors in Fall or early Spring; a cold dormant period is beneficial for lemon balm's germination.
Transplant seedling starts when temperatures reach 65°F. Protect plants from late frosts until they're fully established, and keep the soil moist until their roots have a chance to take hold.
Deadheading spent flowers will encourage new blooms.
Harvesting Lemon Mint
Snip off lemon mint's leaves as you need them, or cut the sturdy, tall, flower-tipped stalks for floral arrangements. Entire stalks can be upended and hung in a warm, dry spot for storage; leaves and flowers can be frozen with water in ice cube trays, but lemon mint is always better when it's fresh.
When laid out in a single layer on a cookie sheet, and placed in a warm (not hot) oven, you can speed up the drying process. Then, store in an airtight container in the freezer, in your fridge, or with your other herbs and spices.
For a great step-by-step, photo-rich tutorial on drying mint leaves, check out this post from Pamela at Brooklyn Farm Girl!
Lemon Mint in the Kitchen
Lemon mint has (surprise, surprise) a refreshing minty-lemony flavor. Use it to replace any other mint with garnishes and seasonings, especially when you need a hint of citrus. Use crushed lemon mint in curries, Greek dishes, and lamb roasts, or as flavorings for jams, jellies, and canned fruit recipes. (Apple mint jelly, anyone?)
Mix chopped lemon mint with your fruit smoothies, or toss with summertime fruit salads. Are you on the Greek yogurt bandwagon? Take some lemon mint along for the ride!
Throw some fresh, crushed lemon mint in your iced tea, infuse it with vodka, or make homemade lemon mint iced tea and sorbets.
Lemon mint is a delicious complement to berries, melons and goat cheeses. Do we need any more excuses to eat chevre? Nope!
While most of these recipes call for plain ol' minty mint, we think they're delicious with lemon mint!
- Limonana (Middle Eastern Frozen Mint Lemonade): "This drink is a classic favorite throughout the Middle East where refreshing beverages are an absolute necessity. It looks impressive, but is actually so easy to make." —Faith, creator of An Edible Mosaic
- Spinach Salad with Lemon and Mint: If you'd prefer a milder lemon flavor, ditch the fruit and use lemon mint instead. Recipe from The New York Times
- A Selection of Mint Tea Recipes from WikiHow for folks who need pictures, because they had too many lemon-minty alcopops to get them through that second section
- Apple Mint Rack of Lamb from Food Network. Just so you know, "lamb" doesn't come from tiny, fluffy, adorable brand-new baby lambs like the ones you see in pictures plastered all over Hallmark cards and pre-schools around Easter time. Lambs are usually sent to market when they're 8-14 months old. You know, once they've developed personalities. And developed a nice, mouth-watering marbling.
- Jalapeno and Mint Jelly from Gourmandize, because sometimes, you want your lamb to have a sexy Spanish accent.
- Orange and Mint Jelly from SBA's Kitchen. This homesteading blog archive is chock-full of recipes, and we love this one in particular when used with lemon mint.
- Turkey with Apple and Mint Stuffing: Take a trip to Australia to check out Maggie Beers' delicious recipe. Lemon mint is a traditional herb for roasted fowl, so we think this recipe is prime for a swap.
We're Your Source for Fresh, Healthy Lemon Balm Seeds
If you're ready to add a little zing to your mint collection, we've got just enough Monarda citriodora for our projected 2018 sales. Seed Needs is a home-grown family business, and we inspect our non-GMO seeds ourselves before hand-packaging fresh seed stock each and every season. We only keep in stock the freshest seeds from the most reputable sources, and we're proud to give our loyal customers their best shot at a productive garden.