Spotlight on Balm

Origins | Description | Qualities | History | Cultivation | Harvesting
Culinary Uses | Magical Uses | Other Uses | Quotes | In the News


(an Extract)

by Bernadette Geyer

The afternoon is surreal with lemon balm and lotus blossoms, punctuated with a too-distinct clarity of tangled Kudzu, and you in a hammock.

Latin name - Melissa officinalis
aka - sweet balm, lemon balm, honey plant, cure all.
Family - Lamiaceae
Parts used - Leaves (fresh and dried)
Purported actions - Carminative, Diaphoretic, Febrifuge
Methods of use
- infusion, oil
Constituents - rich in essential oil containing citral, citronella, geraniol and linalol; bitter principles; flavones; resin

Origins - Eastern Mediterranean, West Asia and North Africa. Balm is also native to mountainous areas of southern Europe.

Description - Balm is a perennial plant with oveal or heart-shaped leaves and white or yellow flowers.

Attributed medicinal qualities - It is said to be useful against colds and fevers, influenza and catarrhal conditions as it induces perspiration, it has also been used against sleep disorders, nervous stomaches, migraine, hysteria and depression. It is often used in combination with other herbs and was thought to be beneficial for cleaning sores and for alleviating pain from gout. It is often used as a soothing, calming tea, made from the fresh or dried leaves.

History - The generic name Melissa comes from the Greek word for bee. The Greeks believed a sprig of balm in a hive would attract a swarm and planting nearby the hive would mean the swarm would never leave. It was also used medicinally and dedicated to Diana. In medieval times it was used  to dress wounds and cure all forms of ailment from crooked necks to morning sickness. The Arabs are thought to have brought the plant to Europe in the 10th Century.

The great Paracelsus called this herb "The elixir of life", and combined it with carbonate of potash in a mixture known as Primum Ens Melissae. Allegedly one of Louis XIV's physicians, Lesebure, tried this out on an elderly chicken, which within a few days lost its tattered plumage, grew fresh feathers and started to lay eggs again. Prince Llewellyn of Glamorgan claimed he drank Lemon Balm tea everyday of his 108 years of life and it was the reason he lived so long. It is recorded that Carmelite monks used the plant for the first time in 'Carmelite tea' in 1611. John Hussey of Sydenham, England, who lived to the age of 116, breakfasted for 50 years on balm tea sweetened with honey.

Eau de Carmes, a fashionable 17th century perfume, was a distillation of balm leaves and spirits of wine, to which were added lemon peel, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon.

Cultivation - Balm is a perennial plant and relatively easy to grow from seed or by dividing existing plants in the spring or autumn. Sew the seeds in April or May, and keep them well watered. The plants grow best in a compost rich moist soil in a sunny position. It can grow 2-3 feet high. Plants should be cut back after flowering to encourage new growth. It will spread unless kept in check and therefore is ideal in a container garden.

Harvesting, preparation and storage - Pick the leaves before blooming and in the morning after the dew has disappeared. That's when they are at their most aromatic. The fresh leaves will keep for 3-4 days in a plastic bag in the fridge. To dry the leaves, hang small bunches of the stalks in a dark, airy place soon after cutting, the room should be no warmer than 35oC. Crumble the dried leaves and store in an airtight container. The dried leaves should keep their flavour for 5-6 months.

Culinary Uses - The young, fresh leaves can be used in fruit and milk puddings or a fruit salad. It also goes well with fish, chicken and game. Lemon balm compliments basil, chives, parsley, mint and dill. The flavour will be better if the leaves are added near the end of the cooking process. It is also used as a flavouring in many drinks (recipe here).

Magical Uses - As a love charm.

Other Uses

As an ingredient in the liqueurs Benedictine and Chartreuse.
Balm is widely used in herbal drinks and tonics.
For bathing - Put 50 - 60 g of the leaves with 1 litre of cold water and heat it through, add the liquid to your bath water.
To attract bees.
To repel ants and flies (contains Citronella).
Against insect bites.
As a furniture polish.
Balm oil is still a favorite scent throughout the Middle East.


John Evelyn "Balm is sovereign for the brain, strengthening the memory, and powerfully chasing melancholy".
Gerard 'The juice of Balm glueth together greene wounds."
Pliny 'It is of so great virtue that though it be but tied to his sword that hath given the wound it stauncheth the blood.'
Gerard "It is profitably planted where bees are kept. The hives of bees being rubbed with the leaves of bawme, causeth the bees to keep together, and causeth others to come with them.'
Pliny 'When they (the bees) are strayed away, they do find their way home by it.'


Balm in the News

Lemon balm 'may help memory'

Lemon balm 'boosts memory'