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Gardening with aransas/san patricio

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FOR RELEASE CONTACT – Linda T. Collins 361 729-6037

May 26, 2008




By Linda T. Collins, Master Gardeners Aransas/San Patricio Master Gardeners

Each year, the International Herb Association names an herb of the year, with Lemon Balm, Melissa officinalis, being named the 2007 herb of the year. However, it should not be confused with Bee Balm (Monarda spp.).
Lemon balm Melissa officinalis is a hardy perennial that grows to about 18 inches in the South and is in the mint family Lamiaceae. It is thought to be native to southern Europe and was introduced to England by the Romans. Like all the mints, it grows best in shady, well drained but moist areas of the garden. It can take some morning sun if given afternoon shade. It is considered one of the easiest herbs to grow and can become somewhat invasive, allegedly. I do not have very good luck with growing it, and it has not become invasive. I have talked to people that grow it down here in south Texas without any problems. If you do find lemon balm to be a little too invasive, try trimming off the flowers before they produce seeds.
Lemon balm forms a clump that can become quite large, and division of the clump is suggested in early spring. It can be grown from seeds, cuttings, and/or nursery plants. Its 4a - 9b hardiness zones, makes it winter hardy. Mulch it, and if damaged in a freeze, cut the plant back to the ground, and it will put out new growth. Lemon balm can be given a dose of fish emulsion and/or sea weed emulsion, but over fertilizing tends to make it grow large leaves with little fragrance.
Varieties include:

  • Standard lemon balm having plain green leaves,

  • Lime balm, which is very similar to lemon balm in appearance and growth but the scent is closer to lime,

  • Citronella lemon balm, which is considered the most fragrant variety available, because it has double the oil content of other varieties,

  • Quedlingburger lemon balm, which is a taller variety with good oil content,

  • All Gold lemon balm, which has bright yellow leaves and can brighten up shady areas of the garden, and

  • Aurea lemon balm, which has yellow-green variegated leaves which fade in the summer, but comes back with each new crop of young foliage.

This plant can be used as a tea plant herb, culinary herb, cosmetic herb, household cleaning herb, and medicinal herb. The fresh leaves render a citrus flavor when used in cooking, so it can be used it in any recipe that calls for lemon flavor, including salads, soups, sauces, herbal vinegars, wild game, poultry, seafood and desserts. Make lemon balm-garlic butter and spread it on freshly baked fish. It has been used traditionally in pickled herrings and eels in Belgium and Holland.

It also makes a refreshing tea, either iced or hot, using fresh or dried leaves. Fresh sprigs of lemon balm are used to top drinks and as garnishes on salads and main dishes. Lemon balm smells like lemon cough drops.
Dried leaves are used as an ingredient in many potpourris and the oil is used in perfume. Hang a bunch of fresh lemon balm on the hot-water facet before the tub is filled with warm water for a relaxing bath.
Lemon balm can be loosely woven into a lattice-pattern and used as placemats. The hot plate will release the lemon aroma. Also it can be tied loosely around a linen napkin as an alternative to a napkin ring for special dining occasions, and it can be put into a small bowl of water and be used as a finger bowl during the meal, especially if you are eating finger goodies such as boiled seafood.
It has been used throughout history as a medicinal herb which is said to have mild sedative properties. Also it is said to have the ability to heal wounds, ease indigestion, relieve gas, reduce fever, increase perspiration, relieve menstrual cramps, fight cold sores (herpes simplex), relax nerves, help prevent sleeplessness, soothe minor wounds and insect stings, and even repel mosquitoes. It is even purported to cure heat exhaustion as well. It is considered a safe herb for adults and children, and it tastes very good.
The Rodale Herb Book says lemon balm was used as a mild tranquilizer and some studies show that the herb has a sedative effect on the central nervous systems of lab mice. The oil of lemon balm is supposed to inhibit bacteria and viruses. Also, it reportedly cleanses the skin, and steamy lemon balm facials are recommended for people with acne. It is also supposed to repel certain insects. Try rubbing down a table to keep bugs off of it or throw it into a fire so bugs won't bother the people around it.
Lemon balm, a nectar favorite herb of bees, was considered a citrus-scented beacon to guide the way home to the hive for lost honeybees. And beekeepers once rubbed lemon balm inside a hive to encourage swarms to stay. In fact, Melissa is the Greek word for “bee”.
Dioscorides, the ancient Greek physician, declared that the leaves of lemon balm, when steeped in wine, were a remedy against the stings of scorpions and the bites of mad dogs.
The Texas AgriLife Extension Service - Aransas County Office can be reached by phone at 361 790-0103 or by email at AgriLife Extension education programs serve people of all ages, regardless of socioeconomic level, race, color, sex, religion, handicap or national origin.

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