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growing lemon balm

Lemon Balm: An Herbal Invitation to Your Summer Garden Party

Ditch the white gloves, floral-printed sundresses, and fancy hats. It's not that kind of garden party!

This summer, throw a raging nectar kegger for your neighborhood bees and butterflies and keep the cops on speed dial. Things could get out of hand because your lemon balm patch is the pollinator's equivalent of Fraternity Row on Friday night.

In addition to being a favorite food source for beneficial insects, lemon balm is a graceful garden plant with many uses in the kitchen. It's also known for its calming effect and is often paired with lavender for relaxing teas and soothing, aromatic pillow sachets.

Lemon balm's dark green, wrinkly, 2"-3" long heart-shaped to ovate serrated leaves grow from the Lamiaceae family's signature square stems. Tiny individual white, barely yellow, or bluish-tinged flowers bloom June through August on this great addition to rock gardens and loamy, semi-shaded areas just under the drip-line of spreading tree canopies.

No surprises here: Lemon balm has a strong, lemony-aroma that is reflected in its minty, citrus taste. Bees love lemon balm, and so will you.

What's in a Name? Oh, We're SO Gonna Tell You!

Put those bunny ears on, because it's time to go down the rabbit hole. You can learn a lot about a plant's history and uses from its name if you do a little digging.

Lemon balm's Latin name—Melissa officinalis—refers to the Greek word for honey (mel, or mellis) and herself (issa, feminine version of ipsum). Many gardening and baby-naming references who don't drink as much coffee as we do report that "Melissa" means "honeybee". The reverse is actually true.

In Greek mythology, Melissa was a nymph who discovered the use of honey. Melissae, the term often used for nymphs because of her, is interchanged with priestess, nymph, soother, or appeaser. Honey was named for her, and indeed, honey has been widely considered as all those good things.

In short, Melissa officinalis means "Mystical, mythical nature-loving demigoddess who learned how to keep bees for honey production, and use that honey for beneficial purposes + standard, official, or original gangsta."

True to "standard," lemon balm is considered common balm, as well as a sweet balm and—though not a true Monarda—bee balm. It's also been called "cure-all," though we don't want anyone to go overboard.  Don't confuse lemon balm with lemon mint, though your garden isn't complete without either.

Ah, the joy of etymology. Even a major botanical garden can get it wrong, which is why we cross-reference as much information as we can before presenting you with the facts.

The Buzz about Lemon Balm

European honeybees (Apis mellifera—literally, honey-carrying bee) love lemon balm for its prolific nectar, but the herb's lemony, minty aroma is what truly attracts the attention of this beleaguered buzzing bug.

The scent of lemon mimics a certain pheromone important to honeybees for several reasons...which—don't worry—we won't go into just now. The point is, bees freaking love lemon balm, so if you love bees and other important pollinators, you'll definitely want to plant lemon balm in your garden this season.

An Herbalist's History of Lemon Balm... And a Bit o' Blasphemy

Lemon balm has been a cherished herb for millennia. It was mentioned in writings by all the major Greco-Roman early botanists and healers. Charlemagne was thought to have ordered Benedictine monks to distribute cultivars throughout Europe after Middle Eastern cultures revealed the herb's medicinal uses.

Seventeenth-century botanist John Evelyn claimed that lemon balm enhanced memory and reduced stress. He nailed it, as you'll read in the next section.

Did you know that early Carmelite monks were nymphomaniacs? Well, if lemon balm was named for a nymph, it's true, because those monks were mad about Melissa officinalis, the primary ingredient for Carmelite Water.

For centuries, Carmelite monks bottled Eau de Me`lisse de Carmes from a concoction of lemon balm flowers, coriander, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and angelica root. The exact recipe is unknown, given that Kings Lois XIV, XV, and XVI granted patents to the monastic order, which closely-guarded its secret. Used as a perfume in times when bathing was—at best—a weekly indulgence, Carmelite Water was also thought to fend off disease.

Anecdotal uses then and today:

Lemon balm tinctures, salves, and essential oils have been around a long time, and are currently marketed for the following uses:

  • Sleep aid
  • Stress reduction and management
  • Cognitive function
  • Antifungal
  • Antimicrobial
  • Treat colic in babies
  • Treat cold sores
  • Reduce high blood pressure
  • Treat indigestion

Did you get a little sweaty and stinky while sprucing up your pansy patch?  Rub a little lemon balm in just the right places, and you're good to go.

Lemon Balm and Modern Science

Lemon balm is considered an adaptogen: "A non-toxic substance and especially a plant extract that is held to increase the body's ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promote or restore normal physiological functioning." — Merriam-Webster

Eugenol is a common chemical in herbs, especially cloves and cinnamon. It's known to be an effective mosquito-repellent and anti-inflammatory.

Rosmarinic acid, an antioxidant that increases gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels.

"GABA could work effectively as a natural relaxant and its effects could be seen within 1 hour of its administration to induce relaxation and diminish anxiety. Moreover, GABA administration could enhance immunity under stress conditions." (Source study)

A 2015 study on Melissa officinalis and its primary compounds (myrcene, linalool, camphor, citronellal, β-Caryophyllene, caryophyllene oxide, citral) support lemon balm's reputation as an antimicrobial and antifungal.

Knock It Off, Poindexter! Tell Us How to Grow It Already!

Ok, fine! Lemon balm is so easy to grow, even a sixth-year liberal arts major could do it.

Picking the Right Place

Geographic Origins: Lemon balm is native to the mountains of southern Europe, the Mediterranean, western Asia and northern Africa.

Hardiness Zones: Perennial in zones 5-10, but best grown as an annual in colder climates.

Soil Requirements: Some mints like it dry, others like it a little on the damper side. Find a spot in rich, well-drained, moist soil for your lemon balm plants.

Preferred pH: Lemon balm thrives best in the 6.0 to 7.5 pH range, but tolerates acidity as low as 5.6, or alkalinity as high as 9.

Sunlight Requirements: Lemon balm is one of a few mints that prefers partial shade, especially in hot, dry climates. Plant lemon balm under the east side of deciduous trees or structures to shelter them from hot late afternoon sunlight, or give them tiny lacy parasols stolen from someone (else's) fancy garden soiree.

Watering Recommendations: This herb does well in garden areas with drip irrigation. Don't let Melissa officinalis dry out!

Companion Plants: Lemon balm is the ultimate party host; it gets along with pretty much any plant. Its odor and flavor is a turnoff to party-crashing deer, so consider planting it among flowers or vegetables targeted by ungulates. As long as you plant lemon balm with buddies sharing the same soil, sunlight and watering needs, you won't have any smackdowns in the garden.

Once you've chosen the right spot for your lemon balm plants, make sure your soil is amended with aged compost (especially if it has some old manure mixed in). Then, it's time to get your seeds ready to plant!

Starting and Transplanting Your Lemon Balm Seeds

Lemon balm seeds definitely benefit from at least a week of cold stratification; otherwise, they can be slow to germinate.

Planting depth: Barely cover seeds at about 1/16", and keep the soil moist with a fine sprayer. Do not overwater seeds or seedlings; water just enough to dampen the substrate.

Start indoors in peat pots or pellets 4-6 weeks before the last frost, and transplant outside when the plants are about 2"-3" tall. Once seeds germinate, water seedlings from trays underneath your peat containers.

Plant outdoors in late fall (non-stratified) or early spring (stratified) when temperatures reach about 65F °.

Germination occurs in about 10-14 days.

Space or thin plants 16"-18" apart. Mature lemon balm has a clumping habit and can grow to 16" to 24" high.

Maintaining Your Lemon Balm Plants

Trimming: Once your lemon balm begins to take off, you can trim it back to maintain a more compact shape. Severely cutting back stems to ground level in early spring or late fall (when planting as a perennial) will encourage new, healthy growth.

Dividing: Healthy lemon balm can be divided in the spring or fall of its second growing season.

Longevity: Lemon balm will stick around 4-6 years, after which time its life cycle will come to a close. Replace with fresh plantings, or with cuttings from the parent plant.

Pests and Diseases: Lemon balm tends to attract beneficial, pests-killing insects while repelling those that might do it harm. It is susceptible to powdery mildew, so water your plants at ground level whenever possible.

Special Considerations: Lemon balm, like most mints, reseeds easily and can become a nuisance weed. If you're concerned about being overrun, they make excellent container plants.

Recipes for Lemon Balm

  • Lemon balm can be made into ice creams, sauces, and hard candies (see our recent blog about horehound for basic lozenge recipes). Use it to flavor frostings, iced tea, lemonade, and jellies, or to season fish and poultry dishes.
  • Think of lemon balm as the ultimate "photobomb" for any recipe that calls for mint and a sweet, light, citrusy flavor.
  • Blended Lemon Balm Martini (with non-alcoholic option): According to Shawn and Kris from The Farmhouse Project, lemon balm has a "peaceful, happy taste, a bit more cozy than lemongrass but not as pungent as lemon verbena." Their blended (as opposed to vodka-infused) beverage is a refreshing antidote for hot summer nights.
  • Lemon Balm Shortbread: PBS' Kitchen Vignettes includes photos and even a video tutorial to help you out with this recipe. These treats are a clever bribe to get the kids to help with weeding.
  • Old Fashioned Lemon Balm Lemonade: Genius Kitchen strikes again with this non-alcoholic summer beverage. Lemon balm serves as both an ingredient and an aromatic garnish, and according to the recipe's reviewers, it's easy to make and goes down fast.
  • Salmon with Lemon Balm and Parsley Crust: Try Recipe Plus' pesto variation on a nice salmon fillet. Don't forget to grow some parsley!
  • Roasted Lemon Balm Chicken: This simple Epicurious recipe calls for garden-fresh sage and a huge appetite.

Keep the Party Going: Add Lemon Balm to Your Garden Today

The Seed Needs family offers the finest-quality, freshest heirloom seeds. Through our blog, we do our best to bring you the most accurate information available. The more we learn about our garden plants, the more we enjoy growing and using them. We hope you feel the same way!

Do you have questions, recipe ideas, or historical herbal fun facts you'd like to share? Contact us!

And for a little music to garden by, how about "Sweet Melissa" by the Allman Brothers Band?
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