As we all know Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is one of the hardest plants to harvest for its essential oil. It is a real paradox. The plant grows prolifically and yet its yield of essential oil is miniscule. So while true Melissa essential oil is expensive and hard to come by, those who have access to lemon balm could try out some of these alternatives to the essential oil.
Lois Hole, in her book “Herbs & Edible Flowers” tells us that lemon balm is a semi-hardy perennial, which is usually grown as an annual in colder climates. It may be started indoors from seed or grown from young plants bought from a garden centre. She suggests that you purchase at least two plants. It should be planted in the early spring in full sun, although it will tolerate part shade. The gold or variegated types prefer partial shade. Lemon balm prefers a well-drained, sandy soil and the plants should be spaced 30 – 45 cm apart. It is easy to grow and should be pruned regularly.
The leaves can be harvested throughout the growing season, until the flowers begin to bloom. For the best flavour she suggests one should only harvest young leaves as the older leaves can have a stale, musty flavour. Leaves should be clipped individually as needed.
Penelope Ody in her ”Home Herbal” tells us that Lemon balm was used, in 18th century elixirs reputed to give everlasting youth, and was believed to ”chase away melancholy”. Today it is still used as an antidepressant and a digestive herb. Lemon balm has a lovely aroma and tastes good in herbal teas. An infusion can be made using fresh or dried leaves. Warm a teapot with hot water, empty the teapot and add the fresh or dried herb. Pour on the hot water. The water should just have begun to boil, as vigorously boiling water can disperse valuable volatile oils in the steam. Cover the teapot with the lid and infuse for 10 minutes. Pour the infusion into a cup while straining through a tea strainer. Drink as is or add a little honey to taste. The rest of the infusion should be strained into a jug, covered and stored in a cool place or refrigerated. Add 500ml water to 25g dried or 75g fresh herbs to make about 3 doses. The standard dose is a teacup or wineglass three times daily for adults. For children under 2 years 1/5 of adult dose, children 3 – 4 years increasing to about º of adult dose, children 6 – 7 years about 1/3 of adult dose, children 8 – 9 1/2 of adult dose and increasing to full adult dose at puberty. The elderly too may require a reduced dose.
For sleeping problems try a calming bath before bed. Make a strong cup of lemon balm tea and add it to the bath. You could also try making a little sleep pillow by filling a 20cm square cloth with lavender and lemon balm.
If you are lucky enough to own a home distillation kit you could make your own lemon balm hydrosol/hydrolate. Jeanne Rose tells us that lemon balm hydrosol can be used externally for herpes and in the bath. The hydrosol is calming and soothing and can be used for insomnia and mental stress. Some of the many uses of hydrosols include:
- Cooling a hot flash
- Freshening a room
- Disinfecting your hands
- Making your own wet wipes by spraying the hydrosol on a tissue or damp cloth and use
- Adding to a stiz bath
- Spray on clothing before adding to the dryer
- Use as an ironing spray
- Place bowl of hydrosol with flowers floating in them as a centerpiece
- Add to your homemade creams and lotions instead of distilled water
- Add a couple of cups to the bath
I’ll close this with a couple of ideas from Lois Hole who suggests the following uses for fresh lemon balm leaves.
- Freeze finely chopped lemon balm leaves in an ice-cube tray to add to coolers and summer drinks.
- Add chopped leaves to salads.
- When barbecuing fish tuck whole leaves inside the foil packet.
Lois Hole, Herbs & Edible Flowers, Gardening for the Kitchen, Holeís, St. Albert, Alberta, 2000.
Penelope Ody, Home Herbal, Dorling Kindersley, London, 1995.
Tamara Kircher & Penny Lowery, Peter Albright, Herbal Remedies, Macmillan, New York, NY, 1996.
Jeanne Rose, 375 Essential Oils and Hydrosols, Frog, Ltd, Berkeley, CA, 1999.