Lemon Balm: Revered by Herbalists from Ancient Monasteries to Modern Kitchens

Relax and take cheer; Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is Herb of the Year for 2007. This refreshingly humble member of the Mint family, often considered to be a weed, plods along as a hardy faithful, and yet it is a surprisingly hip and helpful herb.

Aromatherapists use its essential oil to comfort people such as the terminally ill or bereaved who are suffering from emotional over-sensitivity. Melissa essential oil relieves anxiety, shock, depression and nightmares. Due to its antispasmodic character, it is used for stress-related digestive, menstrual and respiratory problems. When combined with German chamomile, lemon balm also addresses eczema and allergies.

Perhaps previously overlooked due to its invasive tendencies, lemon balm is currently enjoying a second glance by herbalists and chefs alike, and its calming sensibilities are endearing themselves to our stressed-out and over-taxed bodies and minds. Indeed, as a healthy herbal tea, there can be no better tonic for uplifting spirits and relieving tension.

AN ELIXIR FOR MELANCHOLY

Native to the Mediterranean region, lemon balm may have been cultivated for over 2000 years. The ancients were certainly well aware of the plant and its powers. Herbalists Gerard and Pliny observed that lemon balm is useful in attracting and keeping bees to their hives. Not surprising that its genus name, Melissa is derived from the Greek word for bee. Officinalis indicates that it was registered in the official apothecary. The common name ‘balm’ is actually an abbreviation of Balsam (from Balsam of Gilead), the sweet smelling and mysterious ‘chief of oils’.

Pliny noted, “It is of so great virtue that though it be but tied to his sword that hath given the wound, it stauncheth the blood.” Gerard and Dioscorides agreed with this claim and used the leaves steeped in wine to treat snakebites and scorpion stings.

Author Maude Grieve gives a nod of scientific proof to those ancient uses in her book, A Modern Herbal. She writes, “It is now recognized as a scientific fact that the balsamic oils of aromatic plants make excellent surgical dressings: they give off ozone and thus exercise anti-putrescent effects. Being chemical hydrocarbons, they contain so little oxygen that in wounds dressed with the fixed balsamic herbal oils, the atomic germs of disease are starved out, and the resinous parts of these balsamic oils, as they dry upon the sore or wound, seal it up and effectually exclude all noxious air.”(1)

Benedictine Abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen, writing about human nutrition in the twelfth century, suggested drinking the strained tea of 1 part lemon balm and 3 parts fennel leaves, boiled in water. She used this as an elixir to combat mental confusion. “Lemon balm reduces the effects of harmful humours and prevents them from gaining the upper hand”, she claimed. (2)

So widespread was lemon balm’s reputation for promoting longevity and dispelling melancholy, that by the seventeenth century French Carmelite nuns were dispensing their ‘Carmelite Water’ to a huge following (recipe to follow).

Introduced into Britain by the Romans, lemon balm is now naturalized in both England and North America, where colonialists transported the plant they had come to rely on for teas and flavouring. American Shakers grew Lemon balm, along with sage, summer savory, sweet marjoram, thyme and other common herbs throughout the nineteenth century. They recommended it for relief from mild fevers. One of the herbs grown by Thomas Jefferson, lemon balm was well established as an important culinary herb, one especially suited to syrups and beverages. The Pleasures of Colonial Cooking, a cookbook based on the Ashfield Recipe Book (circa 1720), lists “two and a half of the tops of Balm” as an ingredient of Balm Wine. (4)

SUN-LOVING AND HARDY

Once planted, lemon balm will take over an herb bed, jumping about seemingly at will, so containers are a logical way of controlling its invasive nature. In full sun, the plant grows to two feet in height, bearing small, white, nondescript flowers in mid to late summer. The square and branching stems support broadly ovate or heart-shaped leaves with scalloped edges. The whole plant is a delightfully lemony aromatic herb, with the scent being at its best when the tiny flowers begin to open.

Lemon balm has few known varieties, among them golden balm (Melissa officinalis ‘Aurea’), lime balm (M. o. ‘Lime’), and something growers call lemonella balm (M. o. ‘Lemonella’), said to be more aromatic than ‘Citronella’.

CARMELITE ‘MIRACLE’ WATER

“Eau de Melisse de Carmes: Take of dried balm leaves, 4 oz., dried lemon-peel, 2 do.; nutmegs and coriander seeds, each, 1 oz.; cloves, cinnamon, and dried angelica roots, each, 4 dr.; spirit of wine, 2 lbs.; brandy, 2 ditto. Steep and distil in balneum mariae, re-distil, and keep for some time in a cold cellar.”

––Mackenzie’s 5,000 Receipts, 1829

The Carmelite Order (or the Order of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel), is the name of several cloistered Catholic monasteries and nunneries, originally founded in the twelfth century and linked to a community of hermits on Mount Carmel in Israel. In the seventeenth century, a Carmelite Order of nuns in Paris, France, held and closely guarded the formula for their ‘aqua mirabilis’ or miracle water that came to be known as Carmelite Water.

Thought to be a forerunner of the famous French eau de cologne, Carmelite Water was taken internally to improve memory and vision, and to reduce rheumatic pain, fever, melancholy and congestion.

Our interpretation of the elusive Eau de Melisse de Carmes follows, and although the original technique would have the cologne distilled with alcohol, that practice is illegal in many areas. We therefore suggest that you make a tincture by soaking the herbs in alcohol. Quite in keeping with the current trends of ‘total spa indulgence’, the toilette water may be used as a refreshing face and body spray, hair rinse, hand and linen rinse. Or add to bath water for a relaxing and uplifting bath experience.

(Makes 2-1/2 cups)

1/4 cup chopped fresh lemon balm
1/4 cup chopped fresh angelica root or stem
1 lemon, rind and juice
1 tsp crushed coriander seeds
1 two-inch stick of cinnamon, crushed
1/2 cup vodka
2 cups orange blossom or elderflower water or pure filtered water
A few drops essential oils (clove, lemon, rose or other favourites), optional

In a clean, large, wide-mouth 1-quart jar with a screw-top lid, combine lemon balm, angelica, rind and juice of lemon, coriander seeds and cinnamon. Pour vodka over the herbs. Secure the lid on the jar and place the jar in a warm place such as a sunny windowsill. Steep the herbs for a minimum of two weeks, and up to one month, gently swishing the contents every few days.

Strain and discard the herbs. Return the tincture to the jar and add the flower water. Add a few drops of essential oils if using. Shake and decant into smaller, dark-coloured glass jars or spray bottles. Label and store in a cool, dark place.

Emperor Charles V, whose parents were Philip the Fair of Flanders and Joanna the Mad of Spain, was said to have drunk Carmelite Water daily. Still sold in Germany today as Klosterqu melissen Geise, Carmelite Water is one of those mysterious herbal blends that delight and link us to the past.

Cooking with Lemon Balm

“Balm, or lemon balm alone, or with sage, is much recommended, with a few flowers of lavender; it has a most delicious flavour and taste, but is most agreeable when green.”

––Family Receipt Book, 1819

Light and sweetly fresh, lemon balm adds a splash of citrus with undertones of lemon-mint to both savoury and sweet dishes.  Use the young tops of the plant for cooking and drying for teas because the large, older leaves tend to have a soapy, musty flavor.

Gather and use generous amounts of fresh lemon balm leaves and add to dishes after cooking whenever possible because the aroma is delicate – and long cooking will dissipate the flavour. Combining the clear scent of lemon balm with other herbs is an effective way of bringing out the subtle and complex essences of ingredients.

Blend fresh lemon balm with spearmint leaves for fruity summer punch or with white wine and soda. Add the flowers and leaves to fresh salads or chop fine for salad dressings. Blend equal parts lemon balm, sweet cicely and lemon verbena for a delicious lemon tea. Equal parts of lemon balm, chervil and sweet cicely make a perfect baking blend for fruit pies, puddings, custards and fresh fruit salads.

RECIPES

Apple-Carrot Popovers

Although made like a muffin, the texture of these lower-fat snacks is not cake-like, but very moist, almost custard-y. One of these with a chunk of cheddar cheese makes a very good start to the day. (Makes 16 large popovers)

Lightly oiled large, 16-well muffin tin
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup spelt flour
1/4 cup Whole Grain Muesli or rolled oats
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 apples, peeled, cored and chopped
1 cup grated carrot
3 Tbsp fresh chopped lemon balm
1 egg
1 cup natural yogurt
3/4 cup applesauce
1/4 cup honey or brown rice syrup
2 Tbsp olive oil

Preheat oven to 375° F (190° C)

In a large bowl, combine all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, spelt flour, Muesli, baking powder and salt. Using a whisk, stir in apple, carrot and lemon balm. Make a well in the center.

In a medium bowl, whisk egg. Stir in yogurt, applesauce, honey and oil and stir to mix well. Pour liquid ingredients into dry ingredients and stir just until blended. Spoon about 1/3 cup (75 mL) batter into muffin cups. Fill wells almost to the top. Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until cake tester comes out clean and tops are golden brown.

To store: Keep in a zip-top bag for up to 3 days, or in freezer for up to 2 months.

Dandelion Salad with Citrus Dressing

Bitter tastes have a tonic effect on the body and should not be sweetened with fruit if their digestive tonic action is to be fully enjoyed. Use radicchio, endive, chicory, watercress, or sorrel for greens with the same bitter qualities as dandelion. Be sure to gather dandelion greens and petals from areas free of pesticides and herbicides. (Serves 4)

2 cups fresh dandelion leaves or other greens (see above), washed and patted dry
2 cups fresh spinach, washed and patted dry
1/2 cup bean sprouts
1/4 cup sliced green onions
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup fresh dandelion petals, optional
1/4 cup Citrus Dressing (below)

In a large salad bowl, combine dandelion, spinach, sprouts, onions, parsley and dandelion petals if using. Drizzle Citrus Dressing over and toss well. Serve immediately.

Citrus Dressing

The light citrus dressing allows the tangy, bitter taste of the dandelion leaves to have its effect on the body.

(Makes 1/2 cup)

1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 tsp grated lemon rind
1 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 Tbsp fresh lemon thyme leaves
1 Tbsp chopped fresh lemon balm
Salt

In a clean jar with lid or small bowl, combine oil, orange juice, rind, lemon juice, thyme and lemon balm. Shake or whisk to combine. Taste and add salt or extra lemon juice as required.

Savoury Mediterranean Bread Pudding

Make the night before and refrigerate this family favourite so that all you have to do is pop it in the oven when you come home. It makes great leftovers for breakfast or snacks. (Serves 4 to 6)

Lightly oiled 11-by-7-inch (2 L) baking dish
2 red peppers, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 Tbsp fresh chopped basil
1 Tbsp fresh chopped lemon balm
1/3 cup white wine
4 oz (125 g) feta cheese, drained and crumbled
3 Tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese
6 to 8 black olives, pitted and chopped
3 eggs
2 cups lower-fat milk
8 slices whole wheat bread

In a medium saucepan, combine peppers, onion, basil, lemon balm and wine. Simmer gently over medium heat for 10 minutes or until vegetables are soft.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine feta cheese, Parmesan cheese and olives and set aside. In a medium bowl, beat eggs with milk and set aside.

To assemble: Line bottom of prepared dish with one layer of bread slices, cutting some to make them fit. Spread vegetable mixture over bread slices. Spread cheese mixture over vegetables. Top with remaining bread slices. Pour eggs and milk over all. Cover with foil, refrigerate until an hour before serving. Bring to room temperature before baking.

Bake in preheated oven 375° F (190° C) for 30 minutes, remove foil and bake for another 5 to 10 minutes or until puffed up and golden. Remove from oven, stand for 3 minutes and serve hot.

Variation: Sprinkle 1/3-cup (75 mL) grated mozzarella cheese over top of pudding after baking for 30 minutes in step 4. Bake another 5 to 10 minutes or until mozzarella cheese is melted and pudding is puffed up and golden

Lemon Pesto

Serve this pesto with fish, chicken and seafood or toss 3 tablespoons with 2 cups cooked rice for a zesty side dish.

(Makes: 1 cup)

2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup natural almonds
2 cups fresh basil
1/4 cup fresh lemon balm
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tsp grated lemon zest
2 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil
Salt

In a food processor or blender, combine garlic and almonds. Process for 20 seconds or until chopped. Add basil, lemon balm, Parmesan cheese and lemon zest. Process for 30 to 40 seconds or until chopped. With motor running, add lemon juice and then add olive oil in a steady stream through opening in the lid. Keep adding oil, 1/4 cup (50 mL) at a time, and blending until pesto has reached the desired consistency. Taste and add salt as required, process 3 seconds to blend.

Store: Cover tightly and keep for up to 1 week in the refrigerator or up to 3 months in the freezer.

Recipes adapted with permission from The Vegetarian Cook’s Bible by Pat Crocker (Robert Rose: Toronto, 2007).

References

Buchanan, Rita. The Shaker Herb and Garden Book. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.

Fournier-Rosset, Jany. From Saint Hildegard’s Kitchen. Foods of Health. Foods of Joy. Liguori, MI: Liguori/Triumph, 1999. (2)

Gordon, Lesley. A Country Herbal. New York, NY: Gallery Books, 1980.

Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971. An unabridged republication of the work originally published by Harcourt, Brace & Company in 1931. (1), (3)

New Jersey Historical Society and the Miller-Cory House Museum. Pleasures of Colonial Cooking. Orange, NJ: Harvard Printing Co., 1982. (4)

Voigt, Charles E. Lemon Balm. Not Just a Sweet Smelling Weed Anymore. The Herbalist, Issue 72, 2006: 9-13.

Websites

www.artemisherbs.co.uk/jsp/artemis/search.jsp?s=lemon+balm+water – lists Artemis lemon balm tincture, dried herb and aromatic water for sale

https://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/b/balm–02.html  – gives the work of Mrs. M. Grieve, from her book A Modern Herbal

https://earthnotes.tripod.com/balmlemon.htm – a comprehensive body of information on the constituents, uses and history of lemon balm

Plants

– Heritage Line Herbs, www.heritagelineherbs.com, family-owned greenhouses, retail and wholesale plants, gift shop, RR #1, Aylmer, 53443 Heritage Line, ON, N5H 2R1, 519-866-5577, toll free: 866-343-0353

– Niagara Herb Farm, family-owned, demonstrations, specialty foods, plants www.niagaraherbfarm.com 1177 York Road, RR #4, Niagara-On-The-Lake, ON, L0S 1J0 905-262-5690

– Old Log House Herb Farm & Antiques Fresh and dried herbs, antiques and collectibles, www.kent.net/Healthyou/OldLogHouseHerbFarm.htm RR #1, Hwy. 3 East, Wheatley, ON, N0P 2P0 519-825-7783

– Richters Herbs www.richters.com plants shipped worldwide, catalogue upon request, lists 4 varieties for sale Goodwood, Ontario, L0C 1A0

1 Comment

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  1. D
    June 27, 11:57 Doc

    I appreciate the historical references alongside modern recipes! Thank you for taking the thyme…

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