With the planting season upon us, it occurs to me that we should discuss herbs that we can plant here in Pennsylvania. Nothing is quite as satisfying as harvesting your own food and that goes for herbs too! There are tons of culinary and medicinal herbs that really flourish in PA. Let's talk about Lemon Balm, Melissa officianalis.
A member of the Mint family, Lemon Balm is perfect for the novice gardener. It grows fabulously in pots as well as the garden. Because it is in the mint family it will spread, so you should choose your garden location carefully and be ready to cut it back as needed (don’t worry, it’s not as avid a spreader as mint!). Lemon Balm is short bushy plant that produces bright green lemony fresh leaves that will grow in most soils. It is a hardy perennial that can withstand some drought as well. The fragrance is lovely when the leaves are touched.
Throughout history Lemon Balm has been used as an esteemed herb in herbal medicine. For centuries it was relied on to treat any ailment of the central nervous system. In addition, Lemon Balm was claimed to renew vigor, strengthen memory, reduce melancholy and prevent baldness. It was used in battle to treat wounds, both helping them to heal and prevent infection. Lemon Balm is also used to attract bees and beneficial insects to a garden, the name itself deriving from the Greek word for bee.
Today Lemon Balm is primarily used as a sleep aid and to ease gastrointestinal troubles. Melissa is also added to topical creams for its success in fighting viral infections of the skin, particularly cold sores. Recent studies have shown it to be quite effective in reducing symptoms and aiding healing. And of course, that delicious scent is popular in cosmetics and perfumes. Melissa essential oil is quite expensive however, so if you are purchasing it be sure that you are getting the REAL thing and not citronella or a diluted alternative.
In your own garden, the leaves are the part that you will harvest (the only part used) once your Lemon Balm is thriving. You can add the leaves fresh to your dinner, an iced tea, or sliced over fresh fruit and ice cream. You can make a lovely relaxing tea from the fresh or dried leaves as well. If you want to ensure a lemon balm stock through the winter, harvest leaves during the height of the season when the leaves are fresh and green. Dry them in a dark place with good ventilation and store in an air tight jar for tea through the cold months. ☺