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Lemon Balm

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Lemon Balm, Other Names - Past and Present

Chinese: xiang feng cao
Japanese: remonbarmu (onomatopoeia and transliteration of English 'lemon balm')
Sanskrit: karpuravalli / parnayavani
Hindi: nimbu bama (possible onomatopoeia of English 'lemon balm')
French: melisse / melisse citronnelle / monarde
Spanish: balsamo de limon / melisa / toronjil
Italian: melissa
English: melissa (adapted from ancient sources) / lemon balm / balm / sweet balm / sweet Mary / heart's delight / bee balm
German: melissenblatt
Swedish: citronmeliss
Greek (ancient): melissophyllon / apiastrum / melissa
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Melissa officinalis

Background and History

Lemon balm is a relatively ancient herb which originally grew throughout much of the Western and Eastern parts of the world, particularly in the Mediterranean areas and much of Central Europe, although a number of species have been introduced to the new world and have been naturalised, although it is generally considered a weed more than a beneficial plant by a number of individuals. It was initially a chiefly wild-crafted herb due to the prolific number of viable specimens which grew in the wild, particularly in untended areas and grazing grounds which were generally left unchanged by human progress and civilisation. The herb was known to the Early Greeks, the pre-Imperial Romans, and quite possibly, even the Ancient Egyptians, who employed it as both a foodstuff and a medicinal herb.



The herb is a perennial under the mint family, which is characterised by its green to jade-green dentate leaves that are most discernable for its crinkled appearance. It is most discernable for the profusion of small, pale-yellow to off-white flowers which grow from the junction between the leaves and the stem. Lemon balm is famed for its unique aroma, which is redolent of lemons in spite of the fact that it belongs to the mint family. [1]

Initially wild-crafted, the plant in nowadays largely cultivated in select areas across the Mediterranean, and a few areas of Central Europe, where it is typically grown as a pot herb. It is prized by horticulturists for its inimitable aroma and for the quaint beauty of its inflorescence, while it is actively cultivated and grown by apiculturists for the type of nectar it produces and its ability to attract honey bees. Its reputation for being highly attractive to bees dates back to the time of the Ancient Greeks, where it was referred to as the 'honey-leaf' (melissophyllon) due to its ability to attract honey bees, and partly due to its slightly sweet-savoury nature, which is in stark contrast to its aroma. Because it belongs to the mint family, it does contain trifling minty undertones, but these are largely overpowered by the lemony scent and flavour brought about by the presence of citral, eugenol, and citronellal which give it its distinctly lemony aroma. [2]

Common / Popular Uses

Lemon balm was initially considered a culinary spice, a potherb, and a type of vegetable. It was common fare for rustic Mediterranean and early Grecian cuisine, which employed the herb as a somewhat milder alternative to mint, or as a more readily accessible alternative to lemons. It is known for its lemonine aroma and its mild flavour, and is commonly added to soups, stews, salads, and even a number of meat-based and seafood-based dishes.

When added onto foods, it is usually employed in large moderate to large amounts, chiefly due to its mild flavour profile. It gives foodstuffs a nice slightly tangy, somewhat zesty flavour, and is believed to bring out the best in seafood-based dishes, pasta-based dishes, salads, gamey foods, and fruit-based desserts. During ancient times, it may have even been used as an ingredient for sweetmeats, candies, and preserves - a practice which may have persisted until well into the Victorian Era, with limited (but still present) applications persisting to this day. Lemon balm can be employed as a culinary vegetable or herb in its own right, and is often made into a paste (akin to pesto) and used as a sauce or a condiment.

Its most common application is as a type of herbal tea, usually brewed via decoction solely by itself, or otherwise combined with other plants of its species such as spearmint or peppermint. It is commonly drunk as a pre and post-meal beverage, either hot or iced, as both an appetizer and a digestif. Stronger decoctions of the leaves are generally prescribed as a mild sedative, and are believed to help promote restful sleep, combat insomnia, reduce anxiety, alleviate the symptoms of depression, and help the body to de-stress. Studies have pointed out to the possibility that moderate consumption of lemon balm tea may even help in the management or treatment of hyperthyroidism. Lemon balm is also reputed to be very high in antioxidants, and may help in the prevention or better management of age or stressrelated diseases. In the early Victorian Era until well into the latter days of the Industrial Revolution, lemon balm was a well-known remedy, and was an integral part of a popular therapeutic beverage-cumelixir-perfume called Carmelite water, which was developed and sold by nuns. It was made by a slow maceration of lemon balm and other complimentary herbs in an alcoholic solution, (in effect creating a tincture) which was then diluted with the addition of water. It was used either as an eau de toilette, or as a tonic beverage. To this day, recipes for Carmelite water still exist, and examples of purportedly traditionally-made waters can still be obtained, although the original recipes have largely been forgotten (as it was at the time, a prized commodity, with a royally granted patent, and a carefully kept secret recipe). Carmelite water (and, by default, lemon balm) was believed to help with high blood pressure, heart disease, flagging circulation, and melancholy. Recent studies have shown that lemon balm can be helpful for the management of high blood pressure, ADHD, and even Alzheimer's disease. [3]

When dried and powdered, or otherwise decocted and mixed with a binding substance such as edible resin, honey, or sugar and allowed to solidify, it can be integrated as a prime ingredient for candies and sweetmeats. Such candies are believed by some to possess some degree of therapeutic benefits, generally minor to moderate decongestant, expectorant, carminative, and trifling sedative properties. Mixed with meat-based foodstuffs, it can even provide moderately potent preservative properties without any detrimental side effects if consumed in large amounts. Extracts of the leaves, if not the whole leaves themselves are also employed as flavouring for a number of desserts such as sorbets and ice creams. Powdered lemon balm can even be encapsulated and taken as a type of food supplement for the management of any of the diseases stated above, or as a general supplement for alleviating depression, hysteria, and anxiety, often when combined with herbs such as St John's Wort. [4]

In country cuisine, even the flowers of the lemon balm is employed as a condiment. Often harvested while they are laden with nectar, it is believed that it boosts the nutritive content of any meal, and is generally added to hearty stews or light soups and fed to convalescent individuals. This practice has dwindled somewhat over the decades, with only very little regional or traditional recipes calling for the addition of the inflorescence alongside the herbage.

The fresh leaves, when rubbed on the skin is not said to promote mild antiseptic and antimicrobial benefits, but it also helps to create a protective repellant barrier against mosquitoes and other insects, thanks to the citronellal, which is a natural insect repellant. When dried, crushed and allowed to macerate in one's base oil of choice, it can be employed as an insect-repellant salve perfect for camping or trekking out-doors. This oil also doubles as a moderately potent healing and disinfectant oil for minor scratches and wounds. [5]

The essential oil of the lemon balm itself is highly employed as a medicinal salve, used not only for disinfection, but also for minor to moderate skin injuries. Because it shares many medicinal properties with the rest of its species, the essential oil, when mixed with one's choice of a base oil, may even be employed as a topical analgesic and rubifacient, although its effects tend to be milder. The essential oil of lemon balm has also been employed in perfumery, with the earliest record of its usage dating back to the time of the Ancient Egyptians and the Romans, although such extractions as were possible then were rudimentary at best, compared to the extracted essential oils made available today. Most modern steamdistilled essential oils of lemon balm are incorporated into the creation of perfumes, or otherwise added in very minute doses to confectionary foodstuffs or inedible scented articles such as sachets and potpourris. When employed for aromatherapy, it is generally prescribed for nervous tension, insomnia, restlessness, anxiety, and depression. Combined with other soothing and uplifting herbs such as lavender or frankincense, it also helps to alleviate and reduce stress levels. Diluted and used on its own, it is even said to boost the immune system through mere skin absorption, and even remedy viral infections. It is famed for its capacity to treat herpes simplex viral infections, with moderate topical applications usually sufficing as a cure for cold sores and herpes outbreaks. [6]

Lemon balm was employed by the ancients as a sort of 'treat' for honey bees. To this day, organic and traditionalist apiculturists employ lemon balm to keep their bees from swarming, for attracting bees into a new hive, and for treating the pain of accidental stings. The plants are also highly prized by apiculturists for the type and quality of honey that is produced by the flowers, and for it's capacity to improve the overall bee population of a 'farm'.

Esoteric / Magickal Uses

Lemon balm has played a strong role in the early religious and magickal beliefs of primitive societies, among them the Akkadians, Arcadians, Ephesians and the Early Greeks, who considered lemon balm to be near-sacrosanct in its status as an herb. It played an integral role in their daily life, and subsequently in their primitive forms of worship, which veered (prior to the advent of the 'Age of Heroes') towards a more anthropomorphic belief in the sanctity of the bee. Later on, this association was adopted into the general polytheistic system of beliefs, and the initial worship of the figure of the honey bee was replaced a worship of matriarchal, grain-deities such as Rhea, Cybele, and Ceres. [7] The sanctity of the herb was closely associated with the sacred status of the insects that it attracted. The honey bee was believed to be a manifestation of the human soul by the ancients, and so lemon balm was considered an herb that allowed individuals to call upon souls - a practice which would later be ingrained in magickal theory, and be employed by more 'modern' branches of magick.

In today's magickal practice, lemon balm is usually employed as a tea for the creation of love potions and philtres, or otherwise dried and burnt as an offertory incense to matriarchal goddesses (as was wont in ancient times). Incense made from lemon balm is also employed by shamans and mediums to evoke a stronger connexion to the Spirit World, or to otherwise call upon ghosts and other types of other-worldly entities. [8]

Due to its association with matriarchal deities, it can sometimes be employed for spellworks that evoke fertility, progress, fortune, or growth. Modern esoteric applications also employ lemon balm as a healing and restorative smudge or draught after break-ups and other painful experiences, to help to ease the transition of painful emotions and to facilitate in the welcoming of more constructive, positive ones. [9]

While lemon balm is typically considered safe for general consumption, pregnant and breastfeeding women should lessen their consumption of foodstuffs, supplements, or beverages which contain lemon balm. In spite of the fact that very little is known about the possible interactions it may cause during nursing and pregnancy, it is best to keep the consumption of such products to a minimum while in such a state. Individuals who are under sedative medication, or persons who have undergone or who may undergo anaesthetic sedation should likewise refrain from the consumption of lemon balm, as it may cause extreme drowsiness and grogginess (and possibly even adverse reactions) when combined with sedative drugs.

References:

[1 - 2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melissa_officinalis

[3] http://www.herballegacy.com/Lemon_Balm.html

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gardening-blog/2013/feb/22/lemon-balm-melissa-officinalis

[5] http://www.chinese-herbs.org/lemon-balm/

[6] http://www.chinanwc.com/food/ShowArticle.asp?ArticleID=371

[7] http://www.herballegacy.com/Morrison_History.htm

[8 - 9] http://nuannaarpoq.wordpress.com/thalassas-herbal/lemon-balm/

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Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt. © herbs-info.com 2013

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