STILLWATER — Lemon balm (not to be confused with lemon verbena) is a member of the mint family and native to southern Europe. Because of the wonderful lemony fragrance of its crushed leaves, it did not take long for it to be introduced in other parts of the world, comfortably making itself at home in moist, waste, mountainous or coastal areas. It can be recognized by its square stems, toothed, light-green leaves and, of course, the lemon scent. Spreading by short rhizomes (underground stems), the branched foliage may reach 24 inches tall. Insignificant white flowers grow from the leaf axils in summer and early fall.
Older herb references refer to this plant simply as “balm”. Yet because “Melissa” in Greek refers to the honeybee, there have been some who mistake lemon balm with Monarda, commonly called bee balm.
Lemon balm is a favorite of bees and makes a fine-flavored honey. The leaves may also be used fresh to flavor salads, vegetable dishes, fish, poultry — essentially, any culinary delight which may be enhanced with a hint of lemon.
As early as the eighth century, herbalists have touted lemon balm’s ability to lift one’s spirit. Described as the “gladdening” herb, Melissa made its way from the Mediterranean countries into monastery gardens throughout Europe. John Evelyn, a 17th-century gardener, wrote, “Balm is sovereign for the brain, strengthening the memory and powerfully chasing away melancholy.” Today, lemon balm is primarily used in herb teas and aromatherapy.
Lemon balm is easily used fresh, but it can also be dried for use during the winter months. Cutting the stems back will encourage the plants to branch and prevent seed formation, thus discouraging lemon balm’s invasive tendencies. Harvest stems just before flowering. Lemon balm is fragile in that if it is dried in the light or for too long a period, it will lose its fragrance and medicinal benefits. Tie the stems in bunches and hang in an airy, dark, warm place. Drying should take no more than two days. Store the dried leaves in a dark jar or cabinet for fragrance retention.
I’ve seen Lemon balm loose in California woods, out of control and crowding out native plants. While it is just as possible for this to happen in Oklahoma, with regular attention to control its vigor, lemon balm can be an asset to any herb garden.
LeeAnn Barton has worked with nurseries for more than 20 years. She digs in the dirt in Stillwater. Direct any questions to her, especially about tree selections, by emailing email@example.com.