Down the ages lemon balm has been used to cure many ailments including epilepsy and melancholia. Balm tea was also believed to ensure a long and trouble-free life.
Lemon balm, melissa officinalis, is an attractive herb growing to about 3 ft (9 cm) in height which was invariably to be found in old herb gardens. The straight, square stem is much branched with light green, rather coarse leaves and small white flowers growing in loose clusters in the leaf axils. The flowers bloom from July to September. The whole plant is slightly hairy and when bruised the leaves have a fragrant lemony scent which attracts the bees in great numbers. This accounts for its name ‘melissa’, the Greek word for bee. It is a rapid-growing perennial plant of thick and bushy growth.
In the kitchen, lemon balm is an important culinary herb. With its strong lemony flavour it can take the place of grated lemon peel in stuffings for poultry and game, with fish and in fruit salads, ice creams and orange mousse. It is refreshing when added to fruit drinks and wine or cider cups. Melissa tea is a well- known soothing and relaxing tea which can be taken at any time of the day.
Lemon balm grows without trouble in any garden soil in sun or semi-shade and is propagated by seed, cuttings or division of roots. Seed is slow to germinate but can be sown in the spring for planting out later in the year. Lemon balm grows best from stem cuttings which are taken in spring or autumn and planted 2ft (6 I cm) apart. It has a rampant root system, so care should be taken that it does not choke other plants; allow plenty of space or set in root tiles around it.
Lemon balm is used in the manufacture of toilet waters and perfumes. In the home the leaves and flowering tips are the parts used and these can be fresh or dried. For drying pick the leaves before the flowers appear and the flowering tips before the flowers are fully open. However, lemon balm is more effective when used fresh.
Lemon balm is a mild, fragrant herb that can be taken over a long period of time; it is helpful for flatulence, stomach upsets, headaches and neuralgia. It calms the nervous system, reducing tension, and melissa tea taken hot last thing at night will ensure a good night’s sleep for those who suffer from insomnia. It is also a remedy for common feminine ailments.
To make melissa tea: Pour 1 cup of boiling water on to 2 teaspoons of fresh chopped lemon balm or I teaspoon of dried herb. Leave to infuse for 10—15 minutes, strain and add honey to sweeten.
Melissa tea is said to be good for the digestion when taken after a meal in place of coffee, and is a remedy for dizziness. For headaches take a cup of hot melissa tea twice a day. In cases of feverish colds and influenza lemon balm slightly increases perspiration and cooled melissa tea can be taken quite freely.
It is also one of the best herbal teas for those suffering from nausea and is good for settling the stomach. The tea can also be helpful in easing menstrual pain and can safely be drunk when required on a regular basis. Sweeten the tea with a little honey and add a slice of lemon to make a delicious lemon- scented drink.
Externally, a poultice made with fresh leaves and flowering tips is said to benefit those with rheumatism.
* To make a poultice: Crush the leaves to a pulp and spread between pieces of muslin or cheesecloth. Heat the poultice between 2 plates over a pan of boiling water and when sufficiently hot place on the affected part. Renew as necessary.
* An instant remedy for an insect bite is to rub, or to hold, well crushed leaves firmly over the spot.
Lemon balm infusion is made slightly stronger than tea. Used as a mouthwash it will help to remove bad breath and is said to relieve toothache. Cotton wool pads or balls dipped into the infusion and applied to minor cuts and abrasions will help to soothe and heal. * To make an infusion: Pour I cup of boiling water over 4 teaspoons of fresh herb and leave until lukewarm before straining.
Lemon balm has mild antiseptic properties and can be used as a complexion lotion to soothe irritations of the skin and protect it from infection.
* To make a skin lotion: Use 3 teaspoons of lemon balm in 1 cup of boiling water. Leave until it is cold before straining into screwtop bottles. The lotion will keep for a few days in a cool place or in the refrigerator, but freshly made lotion is always more pleasant to use. After cleansing the face, dip cotton wool pads or balls in the lotion and smooth over the skin. The lotion can be used night and morning for softening the skin and helping the complexion.
Lemon balm can be used on its own or in a mixture of other herbs for a soothing refreshing bath.
* To make a herbal bath: Choose from rosemary, elderflower, chamomile and marjoram and make a strong infusion. Take 2 handfuls of the herbs and put in an enamel pan with 6—8 cups of water. Bring slowly to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain and add the infusion to the bath water.
Lemon balm, with its strong lemon-scented leaves, adds a long-lasting fragrance to potpourris and herb cushions helping to fix the scents of the other herbs.
* For a sweet-smelling, soothing herb cushion which will relax those suffering from sleeplessness due to nerves: 1’4ix together dried crushed lemon balm, peppermint and sage in equal quantities. Add a few drops of lavender oil to soften the crackle of the dried leaves. The cushion should be made of muslin, cheesecloth or gauze so that the full scent of the aromatic herbs can be enjoyed, and covered with a pretty flowered fabric of light cotton or lawn.