by Matt Gibson
As far as herbs go, lemon balm is one of the least commonly cultivated herbs available for purchase in the nursery, and lemon balm is therefore a rare sight in modern herb gardens around the world. However, lemon balm, also called Melissa, is highly therapeutic, has valuable medicinal and practical applications, and growing it will attract bees, as well as help to restore our dwindling bee population. This article will teach you everything you need to know to grow your own lemon balm in your garden, care for it, and harvest it.
If you are not already growing lemon balm in your garden, you most certainly should be. Native to the East Mediterranean region and West Asia, this citrus-scented herb has been grown and harvested for centuries for its medicinal value. The plant is rich in antibacterial, antiviral, antispasmodic, and antidepressant compounds. Since ancient times, the leaves, stems, flowers, and oils of lemon balm have been used as medicinal treatments for purposes such as easing anxiety, helping subdue restlessness and promote sound sleep, increasing appetite, soothing abdominal pain caused by indigestion, and reducing muscle tension caused by stress and overexertion.
Before the Middle Ages, lemon balm was often steeped in wine to produce a healing elixir. This alcoholic and herbal infusion was most often consumed as a beverage to improve the patient’s mood and lower stress. When the mixture was applied topically, it was used in order to speed up the healing time of wounds and to treat insect bites and stings.
A member of the mint family, the lemon balm plant grows to about two feet high and can sometimes reach higher if the plant is not trimmed. In the spring and fall months, lemon balm produces clusters of light yellow flowers. Though the plant looks exactly like any other variety of mint plant you can grown, if you rub a leaf or two between your fingers, its simultaneously sweet and tart flavor and the distinctive aroma of lemons overpower the senses, and of course, a hint of mint remains, tying the flavor profile together.
Medicinal Uses of Lemon Balm
Lemon balm is said to help improve sleep, reduce stress and anxiety, improve memory and problem solving skills, increase alertness, normalize blood sugar levels, support liver health, improve digestion, ease stomach pains, improve skin health, reduce muscle tension, treat cold sores, and improve liver health and functionality.
Practical Uses for Lemon Balm
Aside from its many medicinal uses, lemon balm can also be used to repel mosquitoes naturally without relying on chemicals like DEET, which many gardeners avoid using due to worries about toxicity and harmful side effects. In addition to keeping mosquitoes at bay, growing lemon balm in your garden also means you’re doing a big favor for your local bee population. Due to increased use of pesticides, shifts in climate, and the agriculture industry’s introduction of genetically modified crops, bee populations are dwindling, and bees can therefore use as many favors from us as they can get. By growing lemon balm, you are doing your part to help restore the bee population in your area while also inviting a generous amount of these buzzing pollinators to your garden. If you or one of your family members is allergic to bees, you may want to consider growing lemon balm on the outskirts of your garden where there is less foot traffic.
Varieties of Lemon Balm
Within the mint family, a small genus of plants called Melissa make up the handful of varieties colloquially known as lemon balm. There are five different varieties of lemon balm available to grow in your garden.
The Melissa compacta variety is a great choice for the garden as it is sterile, and therefore it is more polite than many strains of mint and won’t try to take over the entire garden. The compacta species is also, as its name suggests, more of a spacesaver in the garden than the standard lemon balm plant is, making it an excellent choice for gardeners trying to make the most of every square inch of soil—or maximize precious space on a balcony or patio. Another notable variety is the Melissa aurea strain, which is often chosen for its appealing variegated ornamental foliage.
The most common variety of lemon balm is Melissa officinalis. Between the five different varieties available, there is not a great range of variance in the aroma or flavor of the plants, so the common variety of lemon balm is the one most often grown and the one you will find in most nurseries
Growing Conditions for Lemon Balm
Hardy to USDA zones 4a through 9b, lemon balm plants are not very picky about the environment in which they grow. Almost any soil type will work for growing lemon balm, but that soil needs to be rich in nutrients and organic matter and have ample drainage. Lemon balm will thrive in full sunlight, but it can do well in full sun to partial shade locations as well. For gardeners in dry climates, planting lemon balm in a spot with partial shade is recommended over one that gets full sun. Instead of using a fertilizer, which can decrease the strength of aroma and flavor of your herbs, simply amend the soil with lots of organic matter, which will enrich the nutrient levels of your soil without oversaturating it with nutrients.
How to Plant Lemon Balm
Germination should occur between 12 to 21 days. Start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost in your area. After all possible threat of frost has passed, move seedlings outside, spacing each plant 12 to 15 inches apart. Provide a deep watering after transplanting to help ease the transition.
Care of Lemon Balm
Once established, lemon balm will do just fine with very little care. Trimming is recommended to encourage healthy new growth, and it is also the way to harvest the herb for use. Never cut down more than one third of your plants at a time. Harvest larger, older leaves first. Lemon balm does require a regular schedule for watering, and watering by hand is especially important in extreme heat or drought. Soil should remain consistently moist, but be careful not to overwater. Lemon balm can be easily propagated from seeds, cuttings, or by plant division.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Lemon Balm
Lemon balm can be susceptible to whitefly, spider mites, thrips, and powdery mildew.
Videos About Growing Lemon Balm
Put your lemon balm plants to use by turning them into a lemon balm oil infusion. If you are suffering from cold sores, lemon balm oil is recommended as an effective homemade treatment. This step-by-step video teaches you how to make lemon balm infusion oil at home:
This video, from YouTube user HerbalJedi, teaches you about all of the various uses for lemon balm and shows you how to transform lemon balm into different home remedies that have been trusted for centuries to treat a wide array of problems:
This short informative video teaches you how to make lemon balm tea and explains the benefits of consuming a cup of lemon balm tea every day:
Are you more of a visual learner? If so, this video will show you everything you need to know in order to grow and care for the lemon balm plant:
This tutorial video teaches you how to make a lemon balm salve, or balm, to capture lemon balm’s curative properties at their peak and put the herb’s many topical benefits into practice:
Want to Learn More About Growing Lemon Balm?
University of Illinois Extension covers Herb Gardening: Lemon Balm
Gardening Know How covers Growing Lemon Balm
Harvest to Table covers How to Grow Lemon Balm
Herb Gardening covers How to Grow Lemon Balm
Natural Living Ideas cover 12 Reason to Grow Lemon Balm
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