It all started yesterday morning as I was watering. Have I mentioned that it’s been exceedingly hot & humid here in central Indiana? (I hear you moaning, “not more than a hundred times…”) I repeatedly told myself, “As soon as you finish this you can go get something to drink.” And then I noticed that the little patch of excess peppers (too many for the nearby raised bed, so some got stuck in the interior border) was being crowded by the lemon balm. AND, the lemon balm was beginning to flower! Lemon balm is better harvested before it flowers, not only for its flavor and the health of the plant, but because I definitely don’t want to to set and drop seed. If you start with one lemon balm, but let it seed, you’ll have hundreds! So, I turned off the hose, got a pair of scissors and a harvest basket and began cutting.
As I was cutting, I remembered the most recent conversation my mother’s doctor had with her, during which he said, “I know how you love working in your garden, but in these times, it’s especially critical that you stay hydrated. The LAST thing we want, is to have to put you in a hospital with all this virus about, so drink plenty of fluids, even if you don’t really feel thirsty.” Hmm! Good advice for all of us!
I only cut enough for my purpose, which was to make lemon balm infused water. In my experience, lemon balm doesn’t dry well, at least not with enough flavor to suit me, and I know there will be plenty of hot days in the coming days to put future harvests to good use. A quick rinse, and it was stuffed into a gallon jug.
Lemon balm has a fairly mild flavor, so I use a LOT. Letting it steep at room temperature for 3-4 hours (or outdoors in the sun for an hour, but then it takes more energy to cool it!) and then chilling it in the refrigerator. Also, since I add ice I like to make it “strong.”
So, that was yesterday’s herbal water, and it was indeed delicious. Today, I noticed a big, perfect clump of elderflowers, so I added it to another jug with lemon balm, so that will be my beverage for tomorrow.
Lemon Balm is one of the most delightful plants in the herb garden. Cherished for centuries, it’s delicious flavor and remarkable scent has earned lemon balm the reputation of being able to “cheer even the most melancholy heart!” In a time when lemons were an unusual treat even for the wealthy, lemon balm provided an inexpensive substitute that every cottager could savor. In today’s hectic world, lemon balm is an easy to grow, multi-purpose, easy to use perennial!
Lemon Balm is a very hardy and easily grown in average soil. While the fragrance will be best in full sun, lemon balm can tolerate partial shade. The standard variety is bright green, with pretty scalloped-edged leaves alternating on sturdy square stems. Inconsequential white flowers appear on stems that rise in mid-summer. If these stems are not removed, hundreds of seeds will form and self-seed throughout the area. Removing the flowering stems eliminates the problem, gives rise to lots of pretty new growth, and provides delicious material to put in a sun-tea jar. These tougher stalks are also great to use as foliage in floral arrangements, where their delicious scent will add another dimension of enjoyment. In olden days, these stalks would have been rubbed into wooden furniture to perfume and protect it.
Golden Lemon Balm is identical to standard lemon balm, except the leaves are a bright golden color. In the harshness of summer, the golden leaves can sometimes suffer brown edges. Simply clipping these back as you deadhead the flower stalks eliminates the problem, and will promote new growth. Planting it where it gets protection from the hottest afternoon sun will help prevent browning. Golden Lemon Balm generally retains its golden foliage even in self-seeded plants.
Variegated Lemon Balm is a lovely golden-flecked plant. The variegation is most evident on new growth. Older growth may become solid green over the summer. The variegation does not usually return on self-seeded plants, so it should be propagated by cuttings or division.
Lemon Balm makes a refreshing tea. It was thought to relieve colds, stomach upsets, headaches, and to strengthen the nerves. It was thought to be especially helpful to the elderly, as a tonic to restore health and strength. Lemon Balm tea also aids digestion. The leaves were often pounded and mixed with goose fat or lard as an ointment for bruises, cuts and other wounds.
In the kitchen, lemon balm is best used fresh, as much of the flavor and scent are lost when dried. Add the fresh leaves, finely chopped to fruit salads, toss salads, dips, and cheese spreads. Finely chopped lemon balm added to honey can make a delicious spread for toast & scones, drizzled over pancakes or on pound cake fresh from the oven. Added just before serving to cooked carrots, peas, or green beans, lemon balm can add a bit of zip. Use a mixture of chopped lemon balm and scallions to sprinkle on grilled fish or scrambled eggs.
A staple in the bee garden, melissa leaves were rubbed on the walls of hives to encourage honeybees to take up residence. In fact, its scientific name, Melissa officinalis, comes from melissa, the Greek word for “bee.” Science has found that the chemical make-up of lemon balm essential oil is very similar to the material in the worker honeybee’s gland, which is used to communicate about food sources. In a time when honey was commonly the only sweetener available, and an easy way to preserve food, plants such as lemon balm that fed and attracted bees were essential.
Lemon Balm also has a history of use in perfumes, bath bags and toilet waters. What a delightful way to relieve tension, soothe irritated skin, and relieve headaches! And, since it has insect-repelling properties, a Lemon Balm perfume or bath is dual purpose.
Lemon Balm was also a staple of the stillroom. It is an ingredient in many liqueurs, including Chartreuse and Benedictine.
Use dried leaves, regardless of color, in tea blends and bath mixtures, or in sachets where the leaves aren’t visible. Even brown, the fragrance can “maketh the heart cheerful!”
When all the lemon balm is safely harvested (and don’t worry, it will regrow quickly!) there’s a clump of orange mint growing along the Lady Cottage that needs to come out, so I’ll harvest that soon, and I’m dying to try my new “Mandarin Orange” balm. Spearmint, apple mint, lemon verbena are all good candidates for herbal waters, as well as basil, which is known as “housewife’s tea” because its a good “Pick me up” midday. There’s lemon basil and clove basil ready to harvest as well as Genovese, but I prefer all of them blended with other herbs rather than on their own. Too bad I don’t have any scented geraniums this year, because the rose and lemon flavors are excellent added to any herbal beverage, but I think I’ll find enough combinations to pleasantly keep myself hydrated, even in this extended heat wave. Do take care of yourselves, and those around you. Stay hydrated, stay healthy!