Lemon Balm-Melissa Officinalis
Also known as: balm, bee balm, Melissa, garden balm, honey plant
Parts used: leaves
Meridians/Organs affected: lungs, liver
Properties: diaphoretic, calmative, antispasmodic, emmenogogue, carminative, stomachic, sedative, antidepressant, antiviral
This plant is a member of the mint family. Lemon balm has been used by several cultures for over 2000 years. It can be traced back to Arab physicians in the 10th century who commonly used balm to encourage longevity and good spirits. Paracelsus (Swiss physician from the 16th century) referred to it as the 'elixir of life'. The distinguishing name for lemon balm is Melissa officinalis, any other name is a fake and should be regarded with suspicion. Melissa in greek is the word for 'honey bee' designating lemon balm's long history with bees. It is a great source of nectar and was rubbed on hives to encourage bees to return or to hope a new queen might take up residence. Lemon balm is a lemon scented perennial that can get almost 3 feet tall. It has square stems with toothed leaves and small white flowers that appear as the plant ages in the summer. The leaves are best picked before the plant flowers. It does best in fertile soil and partial shade. It should also be dried in the shade and within a two day period as it turns black otherwise.
This herb is so named as it smells like lemons when crushed. It was mentioned by Shakespeare in the "Merry Wives of Windsor" as a strewing herb (a plant used on the floor, table, rafters around the home to make the area more welcoming to guests). Dioscoredes 'Materia Medica' describes using balm for dog bites, insect bites and scorpion stings. Pliny said of balm that, 'though it be tied to a sword that giveth wound, it stauncheth the blood'. It is a native of southern Europe, north Africa and western Asia but can easily be cultivated anywhere. Dioscoredes suggested drinking an infusion of wine to help with 'mad dog' bites, fevers, anxiety and to calm the nerves. Gerard also followed this belief and said the wine infusion is 'good against the bitings of venomous beasts, comforts the heart and driveth away melancholy and sadnesse.' Francatelli's Cook's Guide has a recipe for the wine infusion as follows:
'One bottle of claret wine, one pint bottle of seltzer water, a small bunch of balm, a small bunch of borage, one orange cut in slices, half a cucumber sliced thick, a liqueur glass of Cognac and 1-2 ounces of sugar. Place in a covered jug well immersed in rough ice, stir well. After 1 hour, strain and rebottle.'
The plant is named after the greek nymph, Melissa, who was the protector of bees. It is also used to make the Melissa officinalis essential oil. It has a rather low yield of oil (it takes 7 tons of balm leaves to make 2 1/4 pounds of oil) and as such it is very expensive. Be aware of cheap imitations often adulterated with lemongrass or other citrus oils. It is also often mistaken for citronella.
Lemon balm has been appreciated by cultures since the time of the ancients. Both Theophrastus and Dioscoredes spoke of balm as being vulnerary, emmenogogic and a sedative. A popular Arab physician, Avicenna, used it specifically for heart conditions and depression. The French use it as a part of their Carmelite water made since 1611 by monks in Paris. This water was used mainly for digestive issues and as an antispasmodic. In fact, in France the essential oil of Melissa is considered a narcotic and used with great care.
Lemon balm seems to have an affinity for iron and can usually be found growing wild near scrap iron heaps or around homes with a lot of metal on the exterior. The same could also be said of iron inside our bodies and lemon balm is one of the main oils used for the heart chakra (along with rose and neroli). The tea has been found beneficial for depression, coughing, anemia, anorexia, nervous tension, stress, cramps, stings and bites, colic, etc. Clinical studies have also shown this plant to be effective for hyperthyroidism in larger amounts and applied topically as a cream it is very helpful for cold sores, bites, stings and shingles. In fact, in regards to cold sores in particular, the trial participants using the cream with lemon balm rarely ever developed another cold sore. It seems that Melissa has the ability to stop the herpes virus in its tracks and lessen the frequency of re-occurance. The oil has also been found to have an antihistamine effect making it useful for those who suffer with chronic allergies. It has also been found beneficial in regards to mumps. Gerard said, 'it glueth together greene wounds' and that seems to be supported by the fact that the hydrocarbons the oil contains starves the germs of the oxygen they need to grow. Extracts of balm have also been found to reduce symptoms of Alzheimer's in its early stages, and to help with bipolar disorder. Extracts have also shown positive effects against HIV. It is one of the best herbs to use on children as it is mild and has a pleasant flavor. Its best application is usually in the treatment of fevers.
A general word of caution with this plant, do not use it if you are on antihistamines, motion sickness drugs or with other sedative type herbs such as kava, gotu kola, calendula, valerian, sage, hops, ashwagandha, chamomile, eleuthero and passion flower.
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