PLANT MAGIC: Lemon Balm, the “Elixir of Life”
Hey y'all! I had to write a paper on any plant of my choosing for my final project in my Horticulture Science class. I chose to write about my favorite herb, "Melissa officinalis" otherwise known as Lemon Balm, and thought you might like to learn more about this super special plant! Here is close to everything you could possibly need to know about this plant. ENJOY:)
Lemon Balm, Honey Plant, Sweet Melissa: this aromatic plant has many names in tribute to its sweet, citrusy essence that attracts an abundance of honey bees! “Melissa” is the Latin derivation from the Greek word for “honey bee” and “officinalis” is an epithet indicating that a plant has medicinal properties. In the kingdom Plantae, Lemon Balm is a vascular plant and therefore resides in the subkingdom Tracheobionta, produces seeds and is therefore in the superdivision Spermatophyta, and these seeds are borne of flowers, therefore classifying this plant as an angiosperm, indicated by the division Magnoliophyta. The embryo within the seed is dicotyledonous, therefore Lemon Balm is in the class Magnoliopsida. Lemon Balm is categorized in subclass Asteridae, order Lamiales, and in the mint family, Lamiaceae. We finally arrive at the genus and species, Melissa officinalis.
Native to Mediterranean regions in Southern Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa, Lemon Balm is an herbaceous perennial that grows wildly and indiscriminately, at elevations ranging from sea level to mountain peaks, from sandy soils and arid climates to cold, damp wastelands. Once this plant was brought to Spain in the 7th century, it exploded in popularity all across Europe, where it received a plethora of attention and study throughout the Middle Ages. It is now a widely cultivated garden staple all over the world, most notably in container, herb, and perennial gardens through Europe and North America.
An incomprehensively ancient plant, Melissa officinalis has an extensive and broad history of use, with its earliest mentions in some of the oldest scientific texts to exist, including the 300 B.C. Historia Plantarum, a series detailing the first ever discoveries on botany and the mysteries of the plant world, and the Materia Medica, the first ever pharmacopoeia, with details on every therapeutic substance used for healing and their interactions, dating from approximately 50-80 B.C.. These books documented medicinal uses such as boosted digestive health and function, sedative properties that soothed anxiety and insomnia, pain relief, and enhanced memory. An Arabian proverb states “Balm makes the heart merry and joyful”. In the early 14th century, chemist, occultist, and “father of toxicology” Paracelsus touted this plant for its promise of immortality, calling it an “elixir of life”. In the early 1600’s, a world renowned astrological botanist named Nicholas Culpeper was studying the relationships between plants, disease, and planetary alignments. Culpeper associated Lemon Balm with the planet Jupiter and sign of Cancer, in configuration with its uses “for weak stomachs, to cause the heart to become merry, to help digestion, to open obstructions of the brain, and to expel melancholy vapors from the heart and arteries.” The London Dispensary published in 1696, “an essence of Balm every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature, and prevent baldness”. Other folklore surrounding this plant include using Sweet Melissa to attract and influence love, promote good health and cheer, for relaxing and refreshing sleep, and to ward off evil; crafted into dream pillows, wreaths, and burned for these benefits.
While some of these claims were a bit exaggerated with the times, modern science supports that many of these uses are steeped in fundamental truth, primarily due to the highly concentrated amount of beneficial flavonoids this plant contains. These flavonoids possess extremely high levels of anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities that help prevent and treat a wide array of degenerative and chronic diseases caused by oxidative stress and free radicals. Acting as a natural nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory, Lemon Balm can be used for pain relief, headaches, arthritis, and to reduce fever, without risking the side effects of stomach lining damage from over-the-counter NSAIDs. In fact, Melissa officinalis is primarily shown to be an extraordinary tonic for the digestive system, assuring peak health and function, balancing appetite, relieving bloating, gas, and nausea, and can be used as a treatment for stomach ulcers and heartburn, two of the largest side effects of pharmaceutical NSAIDs. Being anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-parasitic, Lemon Balm makes for a wonderful natural remedy against herpes-simplex virus, cold sores, eczema, rashes, bug bites and stings, and has shown to work wonders for upper respiratory diseases and infections like asthma, bronchitis, influenza, and the common cold. As noted since the dawn of medical records, Lemon Balm has an astounding effect on our cognition and nervous system, working to relieve insomnia, stress, anxiety, hysteria, and depression, uplift mood, and sharpen memory. Additionally, this amazing plant has been shown to regulate menstruation and hormone imbalances in the thyroid gland. Sweet Melissa may not be a cure-all for death, but she definitely speaks for herself in terms of medicinal merit.
It’s easy to reap these immense health benefits because this plant is so delicious! In fact, a large part of Honey Plant’s value is in her aromatic foliage--the sweet, minty, lemon flavored leaves can be eaten fresh from the garden or mixed into salads, cooked in food as a fresh or dried herb, steeped as tea, tinctured in alcohol or vinegar, or infused in oils, syrups, dressings, and sauces. The inherent merit of the plant doesn’t stop here: cosmetically, Lemon Balm can be used as an astringent facial steam, skin toner, sunburn relief, and as a natural insect repellant; and can additionally be used in household cleaning as a wood-safe furniture polish, air deodorizer, and a multi-surface cleaner.
This plant also offers immense ornamental and environmental merit, which we will now explore through its appearance, habit, and cultivation. Melissa officinalis has textured, heart-shaped, jagged and toothed-edged leaves that range from a sunny yellow-green to a light emerald green, expressing lighter color with more sun exposure. The foliage is of medium density but has the potential to become leggy and wily, which can be corrected by periodically pruning back the stems to encourage a bushier and more attractive growth habit. The inconspicuous flowers, ranging from creamy white to pale yellow, bloom in whorled spikes from the axils of terminal leaves between early summer and early fall. Though nondescript, these small flowers, in combination with the intense lemon aroma, make this plant a favorite for honey bees, boosting ecological merit as a nutritious food source for pollinator species. The scent is actually so strong, it repels unwanted insects like mosquitos!
The first year Lemon Balm is cultivated, the plants tend to grow in round mounds wherever planted, reaching at most 3’ tall and 2’ wide. This plant doesn’t always stay in nice, neat little clumps though: like the rest of the mint family, Melissa officinalis spreads aggressively through rhizomes, horizontal stems that spread underground, and vigorous self-seeding from fertilized flowers. You can somewhat control this spread by removing the flowers before they develop seeds, but the rhizome spreading gives this plant the potential to be invasive. Rhizome spreading does not require pollination for reproduction, and can therefore be viewed as a specialized adaptation for reproduction in the stems of this plant. For this reason, Lemon Balm is best grown in containers, however the wide horizontal spread can be favorable in places where you might be looking to naturally choke out and inhibit the growth of less desirable weeds, or control soil erosion. The whimsical and vivacious appearance, lively green hues, vigorous growth, and low maintenance requirements make this plant a perfect plant for filler and groundcover in perennial beds or rock gardens, as long as you don’t mind an abundance of this beneficial plant!
Mature Lemon Balm grown in perennial beds needs divided every 3-5 years in order to remain healthy and manageable, and encourages regeneration and new growth. Further dividing these clumps into smaller, individual plants is the easiest way to propagate this plant, however you can also propagate by way of layering, which is the most laborious and inefficient method for this plant, and by vegetative cuttings. Herbaceous cuttings can be taken from juvenile plants with as little 8-10 leaves by removing the top 1½” tip, dipping the fresh cutting in rooting hormone, and placing in moisture retentive soil on a heat table, which can stimulate substantial root growth in as little as 3 days. Softwood tip cuttings can be taken from 3-4” of fresh spring growth and have root growth in 3-4 weeks, as long as you remove the flowers and 2/3 of the leaves, dip in rooting hormone, place in moisture retentive soil, and keep moist. Semi-hardwood cuttings can be taken from the very base of the crown of a mature plant in the late summer to early fall, and propagated in either water or the same soil situations as stated above.
A benefit to propagation is you can create many identical and consistent copies of your best tasting, smelling, and looking plants. If you don’t have an existing plant to propagate, Lemon Balm can be easily grown from seed both indoors and outdoors. The seeds from this plant are tightly encased in tiny, dry, dehiscent nutlets and need minimally covered by soil so that light and heat can reach their miniscule surfaces. When starting indoors, sow seeds 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost into a light seed starting mix, barely covering with soil before watering in, and making sure to keep the soil moist but not soggy throughout the germination process. Ideally, keep the temperature set around 70°F in order to see growth in 7-14 days, as cooler temperatures could mean a longer germination period. Once the sprouts have their second set of true leaves, prick and separate into small pots with 1 to 3 seedlings, where they will continue growing until strong enough to be moved outside into large containers, or roughly 1’ apart in your garden.
Melissa officinalis seeds can be sown outdoors either in mid-spring after the last frost, or in early fall to late winter. Outdoor sown seeds are more efficient than indoor seeds because don’t take up room in your house or require artificial light, and they don’t need constantly attended to because the seeds can feel into the seasons and begin germination when the time is most optimal. For this reason, winter sown seeds result in hardier, more vigorous seedlings, as their exposure to the elements positively correlates to more successful germination rates.
Once established, Lemon Balm is the most productive and attractive when grown in full to partial sun and well-draining, loamy soil with a moderate p.H., but can flourish in even the scrubbiest, most barren of soils with virtually no fertilization or water. Hardy and drought tolerant, this plant seems to have adapted to thrive on neglect! In fact, the tiny hairs, or trichromes, on the surface of Balm’s leaves attribute to this adaptation by reducing air movement across the leaves, meaning less transpiration and water loss from the plant, and also by reflecting sunlight to keep the plant cool and retain water in hot, arid temperatures. These trichromes also create a silvery iridescence on the leaves that is speculated to be part of the appeal between this plant and bees! Because this plant attracts bees, it is a great additive to your garden as it will invite pollinating insects to your other plants. Additionally, Lemon Balm is deer resistant and can deter deer from eating your harvest when your crops are surrounded by this bountiful plant!
Overall, Sweet Melissa’s vivacious and cheery appearance, ecological merit, and multitude of diverse uses make this the ideal plant for anyone to cultivate in their space! The myriad of vital health benefits alone make it the perfect herb of study for the budding herbalist or health nut, the ease of growth makes this plant accessible to even the most inexperienced of plant enthusiasts. Melissa officinalis may not grant immortality, but the sweet, captivating essence of this “elixir of life” certainly has the power to enchant all who have the pleasure of meeting her with an innate feeling of peace, appreciation, and joie di vivre.