Sweet Melissa (Lemon Balm)
by Karyn Siegel-Maier
Lemon Balm "causeth the mind and heart to become merry..." - Nicholas Culpeper
When I first decided to add a single lemon balm seedling to my already crowded kitchen herb garden, I had to admit it was with sudden impulse. To be honest, I wondered more than once if the home I had given my new friend would be sufficient in space and if it would impede the progress of its neighbors. As the growing season advanced I found the herb to be most cooperative. Now, as I take my tea to the garden each morning, I greet the plant with enthusiasm, gently brushing its dewy leaves to release its lemony scent. A happy gardener, and cook, my lemon balm has made.
Cultivated in the Mediterranean for more than 2,000 years, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) has been making European and North American gardeners merry for an equally respectable length of time. Known as simply "balm" to many, this plant has earned a place in the medicinal, aromatic and culinary gardens of the world, and is a particular favorite in bee gardens. The Greeks called it "melisophyllon" from melissa, meaning "bee" and phyllon, denoting "leaf." The Romans referred to the plant as "apiastrum" from apias, to mean simply "bee." Sixteenth-century gardeners rubbed the leaves on beehives to promote the production of honey from within. Pliny wrote that bees have a distinct preference for lemon balm and, because they often colonized in its proximity, it was used to locate the hive.
The Greek physician Dioscorides recommended that the leaves be placed on insect as well as dog bites. Although this course of treatment was unlikely able to deter the onset of rabies, the plant does possess an antiviral quality and is often used to treat sores and lesions, including those induced by the Herpes Simplex virus.
Lemon balm has had a long reputation as a "rejuvenator." The Prince of Glamorgan (who lived to be 108), and King Charles V, drank a daily tea made from the herb. Homer made reference to the plant in the Odyssey and Culpeper praised its virtue as a sedative when he wrote that it "...driveth away all troublesome cares and thoughts out of the mind, arising from melancholy..."
The 17th century Carmelite nuns produced their famous Carmelite Water by combining lemon balm with lemon zest, angelica root, nutmeg and coriander. This formula was sold for hundreds of years under the name Eau de Me`lisse de Carmes and was used to treat various nervous disorders. It still appears in German shops as Klosterfqu Melissengeist. The extract of lemon balm is sometimes referred to as the "spirit" or "compound" of Melissa and is still listed in Germany's Pharmacopoeia. However, it has been largely displaced commercially by citronella oil (Cymbopogon nardus), a less expensive alternative with similar properties.
For centuries, lemon balm has been used to calm heart spasms, quiet a headache, or to soothe a nervous stomach and certain skin disorders such as eczema. The herb has also demonstrated an ability to prevent the production of a thyroid-stimulating hormone which makes it useful in treating certain hyperthyroid disorders.
The main action of lemon balm, or Spirit of Melissa, is as a sedative. One study illustrated this effect on the central nervous system when administered to laboratory mice. Lemon balm has also found an application in treating certain psychiatric conditions, particularly those in which nervousness and headache are experienced. Since the 10th century, lemon balm has been used as a tranquilizer and sleep aide. Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, appreciated the calming effect of this herb so much that he proclaimed it be grown in every medicinal herb garden within his domain. The long-held belief that placing the fresh leaves upon a wound, or using the tea to combat colds and fevers is supported by the plant's antiviral and antihistamine action. Some studies suggest the tea prevents the cell division of certain tumors.
The leaves of lemon balm are often added to potpourri and sachets to freshen fine clothing and linen. Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor recommend rubbing the leaves on wood to produce a glossy shine and lemony scent. In spite of the fact that the plant is particularly irresistible to honeybees, it is often burned or its leaves applied to the skin to repel insects. In fact, the leaves contain the essential oils citral and citronella oil, giving credence to this claim.
The fresh leaves and flowers of lemon balm complement all vegetable and fruit salads, stuffings, bean dishes, and marinades for meat and fish. The leaves and flowers are also used in wine-making and liqueurs. In fact, lemon balm is a traditional ingredient in Chartreause and Benedictine. The fresh leaves and stems can be enjoyed in cold drinks or dried to be used in teas. If you plan to dry lemon balm, do so immediately after harvesting the plant since it has a tendency to lose its color and aroma very quickly. The best way to dry lemon balm is in a food dehydrator or in a warm oven. This herb doesn't do very well if left to air-dry in bunches.
Lemon balm isn't a very showy perennial, in fact its flowers (which range from yellow to pink to blue-white) are not very striking and the whole plant has a somewhat "weedy" appearance. It is, however, highly aromatic. A variegated cultivar (M. officinalis 'Variegata'), also known as "Aurea" or "All Gold," has golden foliage and, as expected, a lemon-like flavor and scent. Lemon balm is now naturalized in much of North America and is found thriving in fields and along roadways. Although it resembles a mint it's not as intrusive, and yet very prolific. Lemon balm readily self-sows, and a mere single plant can yield more than 15 oz. of dried material. More plants can be propagated by cuttings in late summer, layering, or by division in early spring. Lemon balm can also be grown from seed sown indoors, but since it is particularly sensitive to "damp-off" it's better to allow the seed to germinate uncovered. Occasionally, a mature plant will fall prey to powdery mildew, but providing a well-drained soil with a pH of 5 to 7 will help discourage this disease. While lemon balm flourishes in full sun, it will tolerate shady areas as well.
Lemon Balm on Ice
This is a soothing a refreshing cool drink for any occasion. Makes 10 cups.
10 sprigs fresh lemon balm, including stems, leaves and flowers
8 sprigs fresh orange mint
5 sprigs fresh apple mint
Gently fold the herbs into a large bowl to lightly "bruise" them. Pour 5 cups boiling water over the herbs and allow to steep for 15-20 minutes. Strain into a serving pitcher and add 5 cups cold water and ice. Add sugar to taste. Garnish with fresh lemon balm leaves if desired.
Chicken with Lemon Balm & Vegetables
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
2 cups fresh lemon balm leaves
1/2 cup sliced red onion
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms
1/2 cup coarse mustard
1 tbls. Worcestershire sauce
Juice of 2 lemons
1 tbls. olive oil
1 tbls. butter or margarine
Marinate the chicken breasts in the lemon juice for 1-2 hours, set aside. Heat the butter, or margarine, and oil in a large skillet. Sauté the mushrooms and red onion just until tender, then set aside. Add the chicken and lemon juice to the pan, cover and cook over low-medium heat 15-20 minutes, turning once, until lightly browned. Remove the chicken and keep warm. And the wine, mustard and Worcestershire sauce to the pan and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce thickens. Return the chicken and vegetables to the pan. Layer the lemon balm leaves on top of the mixture and continue to simmer until the leaves are just wilted. Serve at once over a bed of hot rice.
Grilled Shrimp Salad with Lemon Balm & Artichokes
1 lb. uncooked, peeled, deveined medium shrimp
1 large bunch romaine, torn into bite-sized pieces
2 61/2 oz. jars artichoke, drained
1 8 oz. jar sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained reserving 2 tbs. oil
1/2 cup Caesar salad dressing
1 1/2 cups lemon balm leaves, rinsed and pat dried
Slice the artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes into manageable pieces. Brush the shrimp with the reserved oil and grill 5-6 minutes over medium heat in a wire basket or on a rack. Combine the cooked shrimp with the remaining ingredients in a large salad bowl and toss. Serve with freshly ground black pepper and freshly grated Romano or Parmesan cheese if you wish.
Mushrooms Stuffed with Lemon Balm & Crab
1 cup steamed crab, shredded
10 - 12 large mushrooms
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1/2 cup onion, chopped
2 gloves garlic, minced
10 - 12 sprigs lemon balm, minced
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup bread crumbs plus 2 tbls.
2 tbls. parmesan cheese
Wash and pat dry the mushrooms. Remove the mushroom stems and chop into fine pieces. If necessary, use a teaspoon to make a hollow in each mushroom to hold the stuffing. Sauté the onion, garlic and mushroom stems in the butter over low-medium heat until the onion is just clear. Reduce heat and add the bread crumbs; stir well. Add the steamed crab and stir again. Remove from heat. Stuff each mushroom with the mixture from the pan. Sprinkle each mushroom with the lemon juice. Combine the 2 tbls. each Parmesan and bread crumbs and sprinkle over the mushrooms. Bake in a pre-heated 350 F oven for 15-20 or until very lightly browned. Allow to cool slightly and serve.