An herb is a plant whose leaves, seeds, or flowers are used for flavoring food or in medicine. Other uses of herbs include cosmetics, dyes, and perfumes. The name derives from the Latin word herba, meaning “green crops.”
Lemon balm – carrying the botanical name Melissa officinalis and commonly known as balm, sweet balm, heart’s delight, and Melissa – is a perennial in the mint family. It is said to be native to the Near East and the Mediterranean, but cultivated far more widely. Although lemon balm is sometimes called “bee balm,” it is useful to reserve the name bee balm for Monarda didyma in order to be able to distinguish between these two plants. The confusion may arise because Melissa means “bee” in Greek.
History. Praised in many traditions – by the Muslim herbalist Avicenna and the Swiss-German physician Paracelsus, for example, and used in Tibetan medicine for thousands of years – lemon balm was recognized as a useful remedy from late medieval times. Lemon balm was an ingredient of the famous “Carmelite water,” prepared by the Carmelite order as a restorative beginning in the 12th century. King Charles V of France (ruled 1364-1380) reportedly drank lemon balm tisane daily.
Description. A perennial, lemon balm is a bushy plant that grows to a height of about three feet (90 cm) and produces flowers ranging in color from yellow to white during the period from May to August.
Gardening. Lemon balm thrives in fertile, moist soil in full sun or partial shade. Since it depletes the soil, it needs to be fertilized annually. It can be grown from seed or propagated by dividing the root clump at the beginning or end of the growing season. It doesn’t spread well itself. Lemon balm can both be used fresh, or air dried by hanging the stems and then putting them in a sealed container to preserve flavor. In either case, harvest the leaves when they are young.
Food and Other Uses. Lemon balm is made into tisane, substituted for fresh lemon grass and/or lemon zest or lemon thyme. It can added as a garnish for fish, salads, and vegetable dishes, or stirred into rice or other grain dishes. In the area of beverages, lemon balm can be made into a liqueur or a syrup to flavor carbonated water, added to fruit drinks, and used to flavor teas.