Lemon balm, or melissa officinalis, is a herb belonging to the mint family. It has a pleasant, citrus-mint scent, and a subtly sweet flavour, also with hints of lemon and mint. It is popularly used as a herb, or made into tea, while its oil is extracted for use in perfumes and toiletries. Cultivated as a medicinal plant for hundreds of years, it is also used in aromatherapy and traditional medicine.
Origins of lemon balm
Lemon balm is native to the Middle East and North Africa, and was formally introduced to Spain in the 7th century, from whence its use quickly spread to the rest of Europe, becoming a naturalised species in the 16th century. It was introduced to North America by immigrant settlers sometime before the beginning of the eighteenth century.
One of the traditional uses for lemon balm is to attract bees for beekeeping and honey production. The plant’s small white flowers are popular with many different pollinators, and its Latin name, ‘melissa’ comes from the Greek word for the honey bee.
Its most enduring use, however, has been as a medicinal herb, which was first chronicled by Ancient Greek and Roman sources from more than 2,000 years ago. It is recommended by 1st century Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides as a remedy for scorpion, spider and dog bites, while Homer refers to its sedative qualities in The Odyssey, written in the 8th or 7th century BCE.
Lemon balm was also used throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, where it was championed by many leading scholars of the day. Sixteenth century Swiss physician and alchemist, Paracelsus named it the ‘elixir of life’, while seventeenth century English physician and botanist Nicholas Culpeper recommended it for ‘expelling melancholy vapours’. It is also a key ingredient in the famous ‘Carmelite Water’, a medieval cure-all first made by the Carmelite nuns of the Abbey of St Just in the fourteenth century, and still in production today.
These days, lemon balm is used to add a sweet lemon-mint flavour to food, and the oil is used as a scent ingredient. It can be grown as a decorative, sweet-smelling herb and is also a popular aromatherapy oil. It is still used in alternative medicine, primarily as an aid to sleep and digestion, and as a cure for anxiety-related disorders.
Benefits of lemon balm
Lemon balm is taken as a remedy for a variety of ailments, although modern science has yet to find conclusive evidence that it really works. There have been encouraging findings from some studies, but research has been limited so far, with small group sizes, and more studies needed to replicate initial findings.
Many people take lemon balm to relieve symptoms of anxiety and stress, to calm nervousness, aid relaxation and improve mood. A double-blind study carried out in 2004 found that participants subjected to stressful laboratory conditions and then given lemon balm reported feeling calmer and more relaxed than those given a placebo. Research carried out in 2014 also found that participants given lemon balm in their food experienced positive mood changes, including reduced anxiety.
Despite positive initial findings, however, research has been scarce and small scale - the 2004 experiment involved just 18 participants, for example. Much more research is needed before we can say anything for sure.
Lemon balm is also frequently taken to help combat restlessness, insomnia, and other sleep disorders. A study carried out in 2006 provides some support for this claim, with children given a dose of lemon balm and another herb called valerian experiencing a 70 to 80 percent improvement in symptoms. Again, this is promising, but more research is needed.
Some limited research has also been carried out into the use of lemon balm as a cure for digestive-related issues. A small study from 2010 found that eating lemon balm with a cold dessert could reduce indigestion, while a 2005 review of several studies suggests that lemon balm may be useful as a remedy for gastrointestinal issues, including nausea. Many of these studies look at lemon balm in conjunction with other herbs, however, so more research is needed into lemon balm by itself.
Side effects of lemon balm
Lemon balm is generally thought to be safe when eaten occasionally as a flavouring in food, but it can have some side effects when taken in medicine-sized doses on a daily basis. These are generally mild, but can include increased appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness, and wheezing. It may also irritate the skin when applied topically.
It is also possible that lemon balm may cause drowsiness, so it is not recommended for anyone already taking sedatives, or anyone due to have surgery within the next three weeks. It is also not recommended for anyone with thyroid disease, as lemon balm may alter thyroid function and interfere with thyroid hormone replacement therapy.
Recipes with lemon balm
Lemon balm is great for cooking, adding a delicious lemon-mint flavour to cookies, soups, sauces, and even seafood. A few leaves can freshen up your favourite salad or vinaigrette, and it makes a wonderful herb butter.
You can even use a leaf or two to flavour cocktails, like this refreshing melon punch with lemon balm. Made with chilled white wine, juicy melon balls and a hint of lemon balm, this light, fresh cocktail is the perfect summer drink.
Another must for summer, this lemon balm vinaigrette from Farm Flavor tastes great on light salads, and can also be used as a marinade for chicken or fish.
For those of us with a sweet tooth, this lemon balm bread, also from Farm Flavor, is a must. Home baked bread, flavoured with lemon and lemon balm and glazed with a sweet lemon balm syrup.
Lemon balm has many uses. It adds flavour to food, and lends a sweet lemon scent to perfumes and toiletries. As a garden plant, it smells great and attracts pollinators to your garden. It may even provide relief for anxiety, insomnia and digestive issues, but at the moment, it's just too soon to tell.