At Permaculture Sydney West Seed Savers recently we were discussing the value of knowing the herbs in your garden and what they are useful for. A conversation with my lovely neighbour Mette recently also inspired me to learn more about one of the herbs in my garden, Lemon balm when she mentioned it was served in a salad whilst she was out and about in the city recently.
Growing – Lemon balm is an easy perennial herb to grow, with heart shaped leaves and a lovely delicate lemon fragrance. Its official name is Melissa officinalis. It grows 30-90 cm high and has a variety of both medicinal and edible uses.
Lemon balm can be invasive, it spreads by underground rhizomes (roots) and is difficult to remove once established, so ensure it is grown in a contained area.
Care – Lemon balm prefers rich moist soil and partial shade. It can withstand direct sunlight, but the leaves may yellow and wilt slightly during hot summers in full sun. It also appreciates seasonal watering and we are sure to water it early in the morning and late evening at the height of Summer.
Pruning – There are many options when it comes to pruning lemon balm and it’s almost impossible to over prune this herb. Plants can be thinned in summer to improve circulation and leaves can be harvested as required. Regular pruning will result in a bushier herb.
Companion Planting – Lemon balm is a good companion to fruit trees, plants from the onion family, tomatoes and roses. This herb’s flower is a favourite of bees, so plant it strategically around your yard to attract these important pollinators to your other plants.
Pests and Diseases – Lemon balm is quite hardy and doesn’t often fall prey to pests and diseases, but there are a few to watch out for including powdery milder, aphids and spider mites.
Harvest – Harvest lemon balm frequently by cutting off shoots when they are approximately 1 foot long, be mindful that the leaves will bruise easily.
Lemon balm can be dried by hanging in bunches, or on trays in a dark place with good air circulation. If you’re using a dehydrator, spread stems and leaves on the drying trays of a dehydrator and set the temperature at its lowest setting (95°F or 35°C) and dry for 12 to 18 hours. Dried leaves can be stored in a sealed, clean glass jar for up to one year, however fresh lemon balm is superior to dried.
If you’d like to freeze them, you can do so chopped in ice cube trays with vegetable oil or in water, to accompany refreshing drinks in Summer.
Propagation – Plant lemon balm from seed in the spring or early fall. Cover with a light layer of soil or seed-starting mix, and keep damp using a spray bottle to avoid washing the small seeds away. Interestingly, I have had my lemon balm plant for 2-3 years and am yet to see it flower or go to seed.
I prefer to propagate by taking cuttings or digging up the existing plant and dividing them in spring or autumn. Lemon balm reproduces primarily through underground rhizomes, so they divide easily.
Health Benefits – Lemon balm can be used as a useful medicine and combines nicely with other medicinal herbs. It’s a mild sedative, analgesic (pain killer) and antiviral, and applying the juice from the leaves or a strong infusion of such on cold sores has been suggested by some studies to reduce healing time and lessen re-occurrence. Bruised fresh leaves can be applied to insect bites, cuts and grazes. Its tea can also be used to relieve stress, and associated indigestion, nausea, or stomach upset.
Eating – The fresh leaves can be used as a garnish for drinks, desserts and savoury dishes. It adds zing to fruit salads, garden salads, fruit drinks and punch, sorbet, herb butters, dressing and sauces. It can also be used in marinades or sauces to accompany fish or chicken.
An infusion of lemon balm makes a refreshing uplifting tea served either hot or cold.
How to Make Fresh Lemon Balm Tea
Typically, lemon balm tea is made by steeping fresh plant cuttings in boiling water until the desired strength is attained — shorter steeping results in weaker tea, while longer steeping yields a stronger beverage. The tea can be consumed hot or cold. • 2 cups of boiling water
• 2 teaspoons of fresh or 1 teaspoon of dried lemon balm leaves
Pour the boiling water over the dried lemon balm leaves.
Infuse the mixture for up to 10 minutes and chill and drink afterward.
Lemon Balm Bath– Sage Mountain This bath will help get you ready for a good night’s sleep and is crucial if you want to avoid catching a cold.
• 2 parts fresh or dried lemon balm leaf
• 1 part chamomile flower
• 1 part lavender bud
• 1 part rose petal
Mix together the herbs. Tie 1/2 cup or more of the mixture into a large cloth bag, an extra-large strainer, or even an old nylon stocking.
Homemade shampoo is not as thick or lathering as store-bought varieties, but it will effectively clean hair with nourishing ingredients and botanicals. Because this shampoo is so much gentler, you can expect that your hair will not feel as immaculate after washing. This is because it will not be stripped of its natural oils!
• 8 oz water
• 3 oz Liquid Castille Soap
• 1-2 TBSP dried Lemon Balm
• 20-60 drops essential oil
• 1/4 tsp organic Jojoba or Olive oil (adjust as needed – use more for dry hair or may omit for oily hair)
Make an herbal infusion by pouring boiling water over the herbs, cover, and allow them to steep for at least 4 hours. Strain the herbs out and pour the reserved liquid into a bottle, then add Castille soap and oils. Your herbal shampoo is now ready to use! Always shake well before use since the contents will naturally separate.
Ginger & Lemon Balm Cold & Flu Syrup from The Nerdy Farm Wife
• around 1/4 cup chopped, fresh lemon balm leaves (or 1/8 cup dried)
• a 2 inch (5 cm) section of fresh ginger root, peeled & chopped
• 1/4 cup (60 ml) simmering hot water
• 1 tbsp (15 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
• 1/4 cup (60 ml) raw honey
Place the chopped lemon balm leaves and ginger root into a heatproof 8 oz canning jar. Pour the simmering hot water over the herbs, cover with a saucer and let steep for around an hour. Strain the resulting tea.
Pour the 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice into a 1/4 measuring cup and then fill it the rest of the way with strained lemon balm/ginger tea. (If you’re allergic or can’t use lemon juice, just omit it and use more tea in its place.)
Combine the tea & lemon juice combination with 1/4 cup of raw honey and stir well. Don’t heat the honey or it will lose some of its beneficial properties, so just keep stirring until it all combines.
Cap, label and store the finished honey in your refrigerator for around 2 to 3 weeks. Stir before each use.
Lemon Balm Sugar Syrup
So many recipes are used similarly for a wide range of herbs. Last summer we made a range of herb sugar syrups, lime basil and others. We were delighted to discover you can make lemon balm too and now have some in the fridge to drink with lemon and soda.
• 1 cups water
• 1 cup sugar
• 1 cup torn lemon balm leaves
In a medium pot, warm water over medium heat. Add the sugar and stir occasionally until the sugar has completely dissolved, bring to the boil and then simmer for one minute.
Remove from the heat and tear the rinsed and dried lemon balm leaves from the stem and add to the pot. Leave them to cool and then run through a sieve and store the flavoured syrup in an airtight container in the fridge for up to one month.
This syrup is a refreshing in a glass of soda water or added to cocktails with a slice of lemon!
Lemon Balm Furniture Polish – The Nerdy Farm Wife
• 1 Tablespoon Lemon Balm leaves crumbled
• 30 ml Jojoba, Coconut or Olive Oil
• 4 grams Beeswax
• Lemon Essential Oil (Optional)
Place the lemon balm and jojoba oil in a canning jar and set it into a saucepan containing 1-2 inches of water. Heat on low for one hour, then strain oil into another canning jar.
Weigh out the beeswax into the jar with the strained oil and place back into the saucepan containing 1-2 inches of water and turn heat to medium/low until beeswax is entirely melted. Remove from heat and stir in a few drops of essential lemon oil for scent.
Using a cotton rag, rub a small amount into wooden furniture or cutting boards and follow by buffing with a clean rag.
Lemon Balm Pesto
Pesto has been a long-favoured addition to our fridge during the summer months and over time we’ve tried a variety of versions. These have been based on an original recipe which includes a bunch of basil, handful of nuts, salt and pepper, four garlic cloves, 1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese and olive oil all blended in the food processor.
Sunflower seeds apparently taste great with lemon balm, we used almonds and walnuts when we made it and it was delicious.
We place the pesto in a sterlisized jar in the fridge and cover the top with oil. Pesto can be eaten with pasta, on toast with bruschetta, as a pizza base or in a salad. Lemon Balm is apparently lovely with fish or chicken too.
Lemon Balm Butter
Another family favourite is to make flavoured butters and Lemon Balm is another wonderful option. Cut up a handful of lemon balm leaves and add to 125 grams of softened butter. Roll in glad wrap and place in freezer for use. Great on steaks, fish, chicken or placed over roasted vegetables.