In the 17th century, Nicholas Culpeper, English botanist, herbalist, physician, and astrologer, wrote that Lemon Balm “driveth away all troublesome cares and thoughts out of the mind, arising from melancholy…” This herb has been cultivated for culinary and medicinal use for over 2000 years. Going back as far as the early 9th century, there is documentation showing that the Roman Emperor Charlemagne proclaimed that Lemon Balm should be grown in every medicinal herb garden as long as he ruled.
The Greeks called it ‘melisophyllon;’ melisa meaning honeybee and phyllon meaning leaf or plant. The Romans called it ‘apiastrum;’ apias meaning bee. Bees love the nectar-filled Lemon Balm flowers and 16th century gardeners were known to rub Lemon Balm leaves on beehives to increase production. Some believe that the plant also soothes the bees and can calm a swarm, just as it soothes humans and other animals.
17th century Carmelite nuns made ‘Carmelite water’ by combining Lemon Balm, lemon zest, Angelica root, nutmeg, and coriander. This formula, called Eau de Me’lisse de Carmes, was sold for hundreds of years as a remedy for nervous disorders. I hear a similar formula is still sold in parts of Germany and called Klosterfrau Melissengeist.
The scientific name for Lemon Balm is Melissa officinalis, officinalis being the term used for medicinal herbs that were kept in monastic apothecaries. It is in the Mint, or Lamiaceae family and I’ll talk more about that in an Identifying Lemon Balm post. But Mint family herbs are known for being fragrant and both relaxing and uplifting. As with many Lamiaceae plants, Lemon Balm is carminative, which means that it aids in digestion and helps prevent build-up of gas. It is a nervine, so it directly affects the nervous system and provides a release from tension. As you have read, it has historically been used to combat anxiety, stress, and insomnia. One of the constituents, rosmarinic acid, has been shown to inhibit an enzyme involved in triggering symptoms of anxiety and mood disorders.
Lemon Balm has antiviral and antihistamine properties. It is wonderful as a remedy for colds and fevers, and also cold sores (as I will discuss in a Ways to Use Lemon Balm post). It is gentle enough to use with children and ‘Generally Regarded As Safe’ (GRAS) for women that are pregnant or breastfeeding. But gentle is not the opposite of strong. The quote on my calendar today was, ‘Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.’ The effectiveness of Lemon Balm has been acknowledged and documented throughout the ages. And I could share more history or cite more research but I encourage you to first get to know this herb yourself. Meet it, try some, and see how it makes you feel!
Next up – Ways to Use Lemon Balm. Coming soon!
Click here for the Lemon Balm Herbal Series Overview