Lemon Balm

After the harsh winter and the summer-that-never-was, it’s so wonderful to get a few warm sunny days recently, and see the plants in our herb garden bursting out. Hopefully we’ll have an Indian summer to look forward to over the next few weeks.

Lemon balm, or Melissa officinalis to give it its botanical name, popped up all over the place his year and we probably ought to have picked it for processing into a medicinal tincture a couple of weeks ago, but after all those grey days it was lovely to see the delicate little white flowers bursting out among the heart to oval shaped leaves, and smell the refreshing lemony scent when brushing past. By leaving the plants to mature they’ll hopefully self seed for a bumper crop next year, though as a perennial it will also grow again from the same rootstock.
In herbal medicine, Melissa is primarily used for indigestion associated with anxiety or depressive illness. The wonderful scent has long been regarded as pleasantly uplifting, the aromatic volatile oil has an antispasmodic action on the muscle tissue of the gut, and the mild bitterness of the leaves stimulates gastric secretions, preparing the system to digest food, making this an excellent herb for the job. Melissa may also be used for stress and anxiety where no indigestion is present, particularly in the melancholic patient.

The medicinal tincture is best made from the fresh plant as it is not a particularly easy herb to dry while retaining all its properties. There are various ways of drying herbs, but the simplest for one like lemon balm is to tie cut bunches together at the base of the stems and hang them up in a dry and airy place, out of the sun, or spread on sheets of newspaper in the hot press, provided it’s not too warm. If using the hot press method, give the drying herb a bit of a shake-up every day to ensure that it dries evenly.
Lemon balmĀ  was introduced into England in Roman times, and from there made its way to Ireland. We know it has been used medicinally for over a thousand years, and before its medicinal properties were appreciated it was highly valued as a plant to attract bees and keep a swarm together. So if you’re having problems hanging on to your honey bees, plant lots of melissa around the hives. As well as its herbal medicine and apiarian value, it finds other uses too as a flavouring agent, most notably in some popular liqueurs such as Chartreuse. In medieval times it was used as one of many strewing herbs to fragrance the home, warding off fleas and other unpleasant pests who might be looking for a free lunch at human expense.
With the winter coming, bringingĀ  the inevitable rise in the incidence of colds and flu, it may be worth remembering that lemon balm can be helpful for moderating a high temperature, as it has a diaphoretic effect, increasing blood flow to the surface of the skin and inducing a mild perspiration which helps the body cool itself down. To make a medicinal strength tea, use one ounce of dried lemon balm to a pint of boiling water and allow to draw before drinking freely, as required. There’s still plenty of the herb out there to be gathered and dried at the moment, so now’s the time to prepare for winters’ chills.
More on the subject of colds and flu later as the season develops, but for now, enjoy the last of the summer.

Kevin Orbell-McSean

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