The youngest and tenderest lemon balm leaves have the most flavor and lemony fragrance.
Lemon balm is an herbaceous perennial in the mint family. Its foliage has a distinctive lemony fragrance when bruised. The leaves are light green, crinkled, slightly hairy, strongly toothed on the margins, more or less egg shaped, and about 1-3 in (2.5-7.6 cm) in length. As is typical of herbaceous mints, lemon balm leaves are arranged in opposing pairs on square stems. The little flowers are 0.5 in (1.3 cm) in diameter are produced all summer long. They are pale yellow maturing to pale lilac and arranged in irregular whorls at leaf nodes on upright stems. The flowers are not at all showy and the plant is generally grown for its lemon scented leaves. A mature lemon balm plant can stand 2-3 ft 0.6-0.9 m) tall and spread and sprawl 2-3 ft (0.6-0.9 m) across. 'All Gold' is a selection with yellow leaves, and 'Variegata' (a.k.a. 'Aurea', has dark green leaves with golden yellow markings along the margins.
Lemon balm occurs naturally in southern Europe and northern Africa where is grows in waste places, roadsides and disturbed lands from sea level into the mountains. It has escaped cultivation and established itself in England, northern Europe and in North America.
Grow lemon balm in any well-drained soil; it tolerates poor, sandy soils and full sun. Light: Lemon balm tolerates full sun or partial shade, and the yellow leaved cultivars produce the best color in light shade. In hot climates, lemon balm likes partial shade at midday, and seems to thieve in the understory of larger, leggy mints like members of the genus Salvia and Monarda. Moisture: Lemon balm is tolerant of droughts and should be kept dry in winter. Hardiness: USDA Zones 3 - 9. Propagation: Propagate lemon balm by division of the root mass. The species (not the cultivars) can be propagated from seed but the seeds are tiny and germination can be slow.
This lemon balm was planted from a 3 in pot just a few weeks ago. It has quickly made itself at home in Jack's garden.
Lemon balm is tolerant of poor, dry soils, and makes a good border plant along pathways where its lemony fragrance can be released by passersby as they brush against the foliage. However, lemon balm can be a little weedy looking, and is often grown in the herb garden. Its leaves are used in potpourri and to flavor hot and iced teas. A tea made entirely from lemon balm is said to be especially calming to the nerves. The leaves can be used in cooking as a substitute for lemon peel, and are refreshing in fruit salads. The flowers attract bees and other insects. Lemon balm grown for tea and flavorings should be cut back frequently to induce fresh, young growth which is more aromatic than older growth. Older leaves can become stale and musty.
There are only three species in the genus Melissa, which is from the Greek word for bee, referring to the strong attraction the plant holds for honeybees. "Balm" is short for balsam, a term used for many fragrant plants. Lemon balm has a long history of use in Europe where it has been esteemed for curing all sorts of ills and wounds, both psychological and physical. According to A Modern Herbal, the London Dispensary, published in 1696, says: "An essence of balm, given in canary wine, every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature and prevent baldness." What more could you want? Actually, modern research has shown that some of the volatile oils in lemon balm, namely citral and citronellal, have a calming effect on the central nervous system and are antispasmodic. Also, some of the polyphenols in lemon balm are anti-viral in activity and have been shown to reduce the duration of cold sores and to increase the time between cold sore outbreaks.