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. Lemon balm has a clean, lemony scent, is a pest-repellent, and has a long history with bees. If it becomes too prolific, it is easy to remove and as a bonus the leaves can be made into tea, soap, and lip balm among many other things.
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.
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. Not to be mistaken with Lemon Verbena, another lemon-scented herb commonly grown in 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.
A Long History with Bees
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 these pollinators to their gardens. Beekeepers will crush it’s leaves and use its smell to attract worker bees to a new hive. You may want plants along the borders of your garden vegetable gardens to entice bees to swing by for a nip and pollinate your veggies too.
Health Benefits of Melissa
If you are feeling stress, then go out and pick some fresh leaves and breathe in the fresh aroma, or make yourself a cup of tea. When it comes to stress, Melissa is a must-have. It’s useful for soothing the exhausted and overwhelmed soul which is far too common these days. It 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 us 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.
Common contraindications: those with hypothyroidism should avoid it. 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
It 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.
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
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
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
It 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.
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
Fresh- or dried-leaf tea can be sipped to soothe anxiety, insomnia, and digestive troubles. To make it, add a 1/4 cup 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.
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, but with lemon balm, the fresh herb is more potent. 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.
Or use the oil to make a Lovely Lemon Balm Soap.
More Herbal Growing Guides
- The Essential Guide to Growing Lavender
- Wonderful Witch Hazel: a Gorgeous Garden Ornamental with Healing Skin Care Properties
- 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
- Herbal Guide to Rose Hips: the Hippest Fruit (with Amazing Health Benefits!)
- Grow a Healing Herbal Tea Garden