Lemon balm is a prolific plant with a clean, lemony scent. It’s also incredibly beneficial for your garden as it draws pollinators. Plus, you can harvest and use the leaves to make tea, soap, lip balm, and more! Here’s everything you need to know about how to grow and use the lemon balm plant.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a vigorous wild plant that easily naturalizes in the home garden. While some may call it a weed, it is easy to love in the garden and it has multiple medicinal and culinary uses.
I’ve been using and writing about lemon balm for many years now, and it’s time I put it all together in one place so you can reference everything about lemon balm including what it’s good for, how to grow Melissa officinalis, how to properly harvest the leaves, plus how to use it in tea and other recipes.
Lori’s Green Blessing
This article was reviewed by herbalist Lori Snyder. This is not to be used as personal medical advice; always consult your health care professional for individual concerns.
Here is what Lori had to say:
Hippocrates wrote in 400BCE, “You will find the drink oxymel very useful….it promotes expectoration and freedom of breathing.” The Greek word ‘oxymeli’ refers to the mixture of acid and honey, known to boost the immune system. Many plants like lemon balm can be infused for this sweet and sour herbal elixir. Fill a jar 1/4 full with dried plant material and add in equal parts honey and vinegar. Shake and infuse for 2 weeks, strain, and add to soda water or hot teas.
Herbal Guide to Lemon Balm
Melissa is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), and can often be mistaken for mint. With similar heart-shaped leaves and square stems like mint, you can quickly identify it when you run a leaf between your fingers. It has a distinct minty/lemony aroma that is clean and slightly antiseptic.
The lemon balm plant is not to be mistaken with lemon verbena, another lemon-scented herb commonly grown in the garden and also used for tea. The scent of lemon verbena is sweeter, more like lemon meringue pie, where lemon balm combines lemon-freshness with notes of mint.
Benefits of Lemon Balm for Your Garden
As with all members of the mint family, lemon balm is exceptionally attractive to pollinators which is one of the primary reasons I grow it in my garden and happily nurture any volunteers that pop up. Bees and lemon balm in particular have a long history of being best buds, dating back to the ancient Greeks.
The botanical name is Melissa, which comes from the Greek word for bee. In history, Greeks revered bees, which were sacred to the goddess Artemis. They were also associated with the nymph Melissae, who found the baby Zeus and nursed him with honey. The Greeks believed that nymphs could turn into bees.
This lovely herb has many of the same chemicals that are present in bee pheromones, so beekeepers and gardeners alike plant it to draw pollinators to their gardens. Beekeepers will even crush its leaves and use its smell to attract worker bees to a new hive.
You may want plants along the borders of your vegetable garden to entice bees to swing by for a nip and pollinate your veggies too.
Health Benefits of Lemon Balm
If you are feeling stressed, go out and pick some fresh lemon balm leaves. Breathe in the fresh aroma, or make yourself a cup of tea (see below for the recipe). When it comes to stress, Melissa is a must-have. It’s useful for soothing the exhausted and overwhelmed soul.
Nervous System Benefits
Additionally, lemon balm can help to calm the nervous system, ease headaches, lower anxiety, quiet nervous tension, and send you off to a dreamy night’s sleep.
It’s also very calming for your belly and is often used for digestive upset and cramps. It helps to improve digestion by stimulating the liver.
Lemon balm’s antiviral properties make it my go-to for common colds and cold sores. Its ability to counteract infections while simultaneously soothing anxiety is perfect for the winter months.
Should I Avoid Lemon Balm?
Those with hypothyroidism should avoid lemon balm, as it may reduce thyroid hormone levels and decrease the efficiency of thyroid hormone replacement medication.
Pregnant and nursing mothers should speak with their doctors before using this herb.
How to Grow Lemon Balm
- Botanical Name: Melissa officinalis
- Family: Lamiaceae
- USDA Zone: 4-7, annual in colder climates
- Height: 12 to 18 inches (30 -45cm)
- Spacing: 12 and 15 inches (30 and 38 cm) apart
- Light: Full sun, will tolerate partial shade
- Water: likes rich, well-watered soil but tolerant of drought
- Warnings: may be considered a noxious weed or invasive plant in some areas
The lemon balm plant is incredibly easy to grow from seed, but you may be lucky enough to have a patch growing in your garden. Because it is a prolific, wild plant, it rarely needs to be propagated in many parts of North America and Europe.
It likes rich soil that is kept moist and well-drained but will generally tolerate any soil. If pests like thrips or whiteflies start to damage the leaves, it’s often because the soil needs attention as the plant isn’t robust enough to withstand them.
Plants prefers a spot with full sunlight, but it can also grow in light shade. Powdery mildew is more common in shadier spots of the garden. Try for full sun if you have the space.
Start lemon balm from seed indoors 6-8 weeks before last frost. Transplant out in early spring, in the ground spaced 12 to 15 inches apart or in containers to control their rapid spread.
A Highly Prolific Plant
Lemon balm tends to spread rapidly and can take over a garden plot. One way to avoid this is to grow it in containers. If you would prefer to grow it in the ground, harvest it regularly and remove its flowers before they set seed.
You can also dig around the plants’ edges to prevent the roots from spreading further into the garden. Generally, the high oil concentration keeps insects and diseases from bothering it.
How to Harvest Lemon Balm
Harvesting the plants should be done in the morning before the heat of the day. For the most potency, harvest leaves before flowering. Leave some of the plants to flower for the bees, and after flowering, cut back up to two-thirds of the plant to encourage bushier and sturdier plants. Harvesting the plants at different times means you will have new, fresh growth to pick all season long.
Drying and Storing the Lemon Balm Plant
You can use lemon balm fresh from the garden or dry it for use throughout the year. To dry it, strip the leaves from the stems. Lay them on a drying screen out of direct sunlight until crispy. Store the leaves in airtight containers until you are ready to use them
Lemon Balm Uses
Lemon balm is a popular herb in both the kitchen and home apothecary. In cooking, fresh or dried leaves can be used as mint would be in sauces, salad dressings, and soups. It is easily made into a tea, a tincture, or an infused oil. Here are some of my favorite ways to use the lemon balm plant.
Make an Infused Oil
See how to make Lemon Balm Infused Oil here. This oil can be used in skincare recipes or, if a culinary oil is used, in cooking.
Lemon Balm Tea
You can make this tea with both fresh and dried leaves. Sip it to soothe anxiety, insomnia, and digestive troubles. To make lemon balm tea, add 1/4 cup of fresh leaves chopped and bruised, or a tablespoon of dry leaves into one cup of boiling water.
Allow it to steep for 5-10 minutes, covering the tea so that the volatile oils don’t evaporate as it steeps. Add one teaspoon of honey if you choose.
I love making teas from my garden – read more about how to make the perfect cup of herbal tea here.
Lemon Balm Skin Care Recipes
Lemon balm is my go-to herb for little red spots like cold sores. The herbal properties are best extracted in an oil infusion using the fresh herb. I normally only make herbal oil infusions with dried herbs to avoid introducing any moisture into the oil that can speed up spoilage and attract bad bacteria growth. However, lemon balm is more potent as a fresh herb. In this case, I use the oil infusion immediately for recipes.
Read more about using lemon balm for cold sores and how to make lemon balm lip balm here.
You can also use the oil to make a lovely lemon balm soap.
More Herbal Growing Guides
- The Essential Guide to Growing Lavender
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- Echinacea Guide: Planting, Pruning and Caring for Coneflowers
- The Herbal Guide to Sage: an Easy-Growing Healing Herb
- The Essential Guide to Rosemary: Care, Uses, and Healing Benefits
- Herbal Guide to Hops: Growing, Harvesting, and Using Hops
- Herbal Guide to Stevia Leaf: How to Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Green Stevia
- Rose Hips: the Hippest Fruit (with Amazing Health Benefits!)
- Grow a Healing Herbal Tea Garden