Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

by Sara Seitzman

Common names: Lemon Balm, Melissa, Balm, Bee Balm, Sweet Balm, Honey plant, English Balm.

Description/Taxonomy: Melissa officinalis is a member of the Lamiaceae family, also known as the mint family. Melissa originates from Southern Europe but can now be found throughout much of the European continent, as well as many other areas around the world including North America and New Zealand. It belongs to a genus, which includes 5 species of perennial herbs native to Europe, Iran and central Asia. (2)

Melissa is an erect herbaceous perennial that can grow 1 to 3 feet in height. The stems are square, which is typical of all plants in the Lamiaceae family. Depending on the growing conditions, the oval or heart shaped leaves can grow up to 4 inches broad and 1 to 3 inches long and are scalloped along the edges.  In late summer Melissa shows its petite flowers, which are usually pale yellow, pink or white in color.  They appear in whorls around the top of the stem, with about 4 to 12 flowers in each whorl. When crushed, the leaves give off their delicious lemon aroma (my favorite part!). (1)

History: Lemon balm has been used and cultivated in the Mediterranean for about 2000 years. It originated in Southern Europe and was brought to Spain by the Moors in the 7th century. By the middle ages it was cultivated throughout all of Europe. (2)

It was first mentioned in medieval manuscript as “Herbe Melisse” in 1440. (1) It’s botanical name, Melissa, stands for “bee” in Greek. Avicenna, a Muslim herbalist, recommended Melissa “to make the heart merry”. Carmelite Water was made by Carmelite nuns in the 17th century to treat neuralgia and nervous headaches. It was a combination of lemon-peel, lemon balm, nutmeg, coriander and angelica root. (5)

The first century Greek physician Dioscorides wrote that lemon balm improves gout, promotes menstruation, remedies toothaches if mixed with wine and can treat scorpion stings and dog bites. The Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) believed that lemon balm was an “elixir of life” and would increase strength and lengthen life. In Europe it was also used to polish furniture and tossed on floors to freshen rooms. It was often used in the church pews up to the 19th century. (2)

Early colonists brought lemon balm with them to North America and used it to make potpourri and tea to attract honeybees for honey production. They also used it as a substitute for lemon in jams and jellies. (2)

To this day, lemon balm is a common remedy that many herbalists keep in their apothecary for the treatment of nervous disorders and general relaxation.

Ritual and Spiritual Uses: Those in pursuit of romance primarily used lemon balm as a charm that was worn to bring a lover into one’s life. It was also brewed as a tea to calm the nerves of students that were preparing for ritual work.  It helped to keep their mental processes in superior condition. (5)

Spiritually it is said that lemon balm is known to balance feelings and emotions. It was used in ritual baths to invoke the Goddess, making you more appealing in the world of love and romance. (5)

Lemon balm has been associated with the feminine, the moon and water. It was considered sacred in the temple of the ancient Roman goddess Diana. (2)

Parts Used: Leaves.

Herbal Actions: Nervine: acts on the nerves. Sedative: calming agent.  Mild Antidepressant: relieves feelings of depression. Mild Antispasmodic: reduces voluntary or involuntary muscle spasm. Carminative: gently calms the nerves. Diaphoretic: Induces perspiration. Lemon balm is a relaxing diaphoretic as opposed to a stimulating diaphoretic.  Antiviral: destroys or suppresses growth of viruses, generally by supporting the immune system. Antioxidant: prevents free radical or oxidative damage.

Energetics: Cold, dry sour, slightly bitter.

Constituents: The major constituents of Melissa are the flavonoids (luteolin-7-O-glucoside, isoquercitrin, apigenin-7-O-lucoside, and rhamnocitrin), rosmarinic acid, ferulic acid, caffeic acid, methyl carnosoate, hydroxycinnamic acid, and 2(3’,4’-dihydroxyphenyl_-1,3-benzodioxole-5-aldehyde. The essential oil of Lemon Balm contains the aldehydes geranial, citronellal, beta-caryophyllene, neral, and geranyl acetate. (4)

Medicinal Benefits: Lemon balm is a wonderful herb for multiple health conditions and was once considered “an herbal cure-all”. It is most commonly used for stress, anxiety and depression due to its uplifting, yet calming tendencies. Especially when it is combined with other calming herbs like valerian and hops, it helps to reduce anxiety and promote sleep when insomnia is an issue. It’s tasty too, which helps make it that much more appealing when you need an emotional lift!

Other conditions that it is used for include, asthma, fevers, migraines, shock, vertigo, menstrual problems, hypertension, gout, insect bites, skin infections and some people even believe it could remedy baldness (although I haven’t heard of much research around that). (2)

Nervous disorders that affect the stomach greatly benefit from lemon balm. When drank as a tea, it helps the body to digest food more effectively. Not only does it help ease digestion, but it decreases painful spasms, which makes it also beneficial to those with IBS. (8) A study of 93 breast-fed babies with colic found that a combination of lemon balm, fennel and chamomile decreased crying time by more than double compared to babies receiving the placebo. (1)

As mentioned above, Carmelite water is an old recipe created and used by Carmelite monks or nuns around Paris in 1611.  Since then there have been different variations of the recipe. It is primarily used as a digestive tonic along with neuralgic complaints. (9)

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Rosemary Gladstar provides her recipe for Carmelite water in her book Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide.  The recipe calls for 3 parts lemon balm leaf, 1 part angelica root, ½ part coriander seed, ½ part lemon peel, ¼ part nutmeg, 80 proof brandy and honey (if desired). You will need to tincture the herbs in brandy and let it tincture for 4-6 weeks. You may add a little bit of the warm honey to the blend before bottling the tincture. It is suggested to drink a small shot glass before dinner as a relaxing digestive aid. (7)

For use with headaches or migraines, the body uses its vasodilation properties to ease the tension. This helps due to the fact that constricted blood vessels are usually the root cause of the throbbing headaches. (8)

Lemon balm is also known for its ability to help heal cold sores and herpes. A clinical study was done in Germany that provided evidence of the antiviral activity of a specially prepared extract of lemon balm against the herpes simplex infection. It was concentrated (70:1) with dry extract of lemon, which was included at a level of 1% in a cream base. Patients applied the cream 2-4 times a day for 5-10 days. The group that received the lemon balm cream showed significant improvement in symptoms on the second day compared to the placebo group.  By day five over 50% more patients were symptom-free compared to the placebo group. The treatment works best when started at the first stages of the infection. (5)

Some recent studies show that lemon balm can help with secondary memory and the ability to learn, store and retrieve information (which is another reason why I chose lemon balm tea as my drink of choice while studying this herb). Because of this, practitioners recommend it for Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. (1)

Lemon balm glycerite is great to have on hand for children. Not only is it tasty, but also helps calm and sooth them in anxious or nervous states. It also helps when they have colds or stomach infections.  (10)

Aromatherapy: The essential oil is extracted by steam distillation from the leaves and flowering tops. Melissa essential oil has a sweet, lemon like aroma with a bit of a floral undertone. It’s aroma is calming yet uplifting, making it great for hyper-sensitive emotional states. It is said to remove blocks and provide comfort to those who have experienced shock, panic or hysteria.

It’s a great tonic to the heart and has a calming effect on the circulatory system, especially when the system has been over stimulated. Melissa is a great tonic for the female reproductive system as it helps to regulate periods and help to sooth painful menstruation. (6)

It blends well with the following essential oils: Basil, Chamomile, Geranium, Ginger, Jasmine, Lavender, Marjoram, Neroli, Rose, Rosemary and Ylang Ylang.

As with any essential oil, it is not recommended to take internally due to the potent nature of essential oils. 

Allies: For it’s calming effects, lemon balm is commonly paired with herbs like chamomile, lavender, passionflower, catnip and California poppy. These herbs all help to calm the nervous system and provide comfort to those who are anxious, stressed or agitated. They help to promote relaxation and relieve nervousness. (4)

Cautions and Contraindications: Lemon balm is generally safe and tolerated by all ages but should not be taken if you have hypothyroidism or if you are pregnant, unless used under the guidance of a qualified healthcare practitioner.

Dosage and Method of Delivery: Lemon balm is most commonly used as a tea or taken in an extract form. It can usually be found in both an alcohol based extract or glycerin extract, which is a great alternative for children. You may also be able to find a Lemon Balm lip ointment at health food stores specifically for treating herpes or cold sores. (1)

While the dosage can vary depending on each individual’s unique needs and health history, tinctures are usually taken 10-30 drops about 1 to 3 times per day. The tea can be sipped throughout the day to alleviate stress and anxiety. Usually around 1-3 cups per day or as needed. (3)

As always, it is recommended to consult with an herbalist or qualified medical professional before attempting to treat or cure an existing medical condition.

Culinary Use: Fresh lemon balm can be used in drinks or added to steamed vegetables and fruit salads. Simply adding a few fresh leaves to iced tea or lemonade adds a nice herbal lemony flavor. You can even brew lemon balm on it’s own as a delicious herbal iced tea along with some chamomile and peppermint. (1)

A great way to use up a bunch of fresh lemon balm is to make a lemon balm pesto. Just mix 1 part fresh lemon balm and 1 part fresh basil leaf with olive oil and garlic (if desired) and you’ve got yourself a delicious pesto, ready to add to pasta, chicken or fish.

Cultivation: Lemon balm is a fast growing perennial that is hardy to zones 4 through 9. It prefers moist but well drained soil and not too much direct sunlight, although it won’t suffer in full sun. It self-sows easily after a few plants are established. You can sow the seeds directly in the soil in the Fall, or start them indoors in the Spring. The leaves are most flavorful just before the plant flowers. (7)

When the plant is in full sun it is more compact and bushy. When it is in partial shade it becomes more sprawling. It can be harvested throughout the growing season by cutting the plant 6 inches above the ground. It is recommended to tie the leaves in bundles and let them dry. (1)Lemon balm also has the added benefit that it attracts pollinators, which makes it a great asset to have in the garden.

Sara is an aspiring healer, with a deep interest in holistic therapy and plant medicine. She is currently studying clinical aromatherapy and working towards her certification as an aromatherapist. In her free time you’ll often find her putting her love and energy into Batiah Botanicals, a natural body care line which she sells on etsy and at the Eugene Saturday Market. She also enjoys studying flower essence therapy, hiking, free-writing, film photography, road trips and exploring new places. 

References and Citations:

1.)   National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs by Rebecca L. Johnson & Steven Foster. Also Tieraona Low Dog, M.D. & David Kiefer, M.D.

2.)   http://www.herbsociety.org/factsheets/Lemon%20Balm%20Guide.pdf

3.)   Pursell, JJ. The Herbal Apothecary: 100 Medicinal Herbs and How to Use Them. Published 2015.

4.)   Dr. Sharol Marie Tilgner. Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth. Published 2009.

5.)   http://www.herbworld.com/learningherbs/lemon%20balm.pdf

6.)   Sellar, Wanda. The Directory of Essential Oils. Published 2005.

7.)   Gladstar, Rosemary. Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A beginners Guide. Published 2012.

8.)   http://www.thepracticalherbalist.com/holistic-medicine-library/lemon-balm-herb-of-good-cheer/

9.)   http://www.herbmentor.com/how-to-make-carmelite-water/

10.)  http://www.mtwholehealth.com/2013/05/favorite-herbs-for-kids