The lemon balm of my youth was a giant. Taller than I was (at the time) and wider than my arm span it was the forest in the corner of our herb garden. My sister and I used its leaves in our pretend kitchen, making delicious smelling “cakes” and “salads” to sever our imaginary friends. Its large leaves also doubled as Kleenexes when we were far too dirty to go inside to get one. For me the smell of lemon balm will always bring memories of summer.
Lemon balm is a member of the mint family and originates from Southern Europe. It goes by many names including balm, balmmint, melissa, heart’s delight, and honey plant. An important difference between lemon balm and mint is how they spread; mint spreads with underground runners, and lemon balm spreads by seed. Still, lemon balm is a prolific seed producer and can spread rapidly if not monitored.
Lemon balm has a long history of use. A sacred herb of Artemis/Diana, lemon balm was used by ancient beekeepers to attract bees and keep them happy. In the middle ages, lemon balm was grown in monastery gardens where it was used medicinally to dress wounds and as a general tonic. Lemon balm was also an important component of perfumes and even made an appearance in several of Shakespeare’s plays. Tossed on floors to freshen a room or used as a furniture polish, lemon balm was a useful herb to have around the house. In modern day it is used in both culinarily in a wide variety of dishes and medicinally to treat cold sores and anxiety.
Lemon Balm Care
Size: Lemon balm grows as a bush and can be anywhere from 8 in (20 cm) to 5 ft (1.3 m) tall and 12 – 24 in (30 – 60 cm) wide.
Water Requirements: Keep lemon balm’s soil moist and make sure it has good drainage for best growth.
Soil Requirements: Lemon balm likes well-drained soil with a pH of 5-7.
Light Requirements: Lemon balm prefers part shade but will grow in shade to full sun.
Temperature Requirements: Lemon balm grows well in moderate temperatures like those found in temperate and subtropical regions (USDA zones 4 – 5 and zone 3 if mulched over winter).
Nutrient Requirements: Lemon balm rarely needs to be fertilized; typically leaf matter or compost is enough.
Pruning: Grown outdoors, plants can be severely cut back in spring, summer, and fall to encourage new growth. It is important to prune flower stalks if you want to keep the plant from spreading. New plants can be grown from cuttings.
Pests: Insects do not typically cause a problem for lemon balm. Aphids and spider mites can be an occasional problem, as can powdery mildew and Septoria leaf spot.
Companion Planting: Lemon balm is a good companion plant for anything in the garden.
Growing Indoors: Lemon balm is not typically recommended for indoor growth. If you want to grow it indoors anyways it should be grown in a 15 – 18 in (38 – 46 cm) container and can be accompanied by other herbs. Plants may need to be divided in the fall to prevent them from becoming root-bound. Lemon balm should get 5 hours of direct sunlight or 14 hours of artificial light a day. Lemon balm grown indoors will not be as flavorful as that grown outside.
Harvesting and Use: Typically lemon balm leaves are harvested as needed. It loses much of its flavor when dried and can be frozen for a fresher flavor in the off-season. Lemon balm has a wide variety of culinary uses. It is used to make tea and flavor salads, stews, jams, baked goods, pies, poultry, and fish.
Growing Lemon Balm – Growing instructions.
Growing Vegetable Gardens: Lemon Balm – General growing information.
Herb Society of America Guide: Lemon Balm – Everything you ever wanted to know about lemon balm, seriously. Includes recipes.
Herbal Legacy: History of Lemon Balm – Detailed history of lemon balm.
Lemon Balm Production – Pamphlet from the Republic of South Africa’s Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries detailing production guidelines for growing lemon balm as a crop.
North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service – Growing instructions.