Thursday, January 9, 2014
The Wonders of Lemon Balm
A few years ago we planted a small patch of lemon balm in our flower bed behind the house. This proved to be a huge mistake that we only later saw as a blessing. You see lemon balm, when given the appropriate kind of soil conditions...goes bananas! Granted our soil was a mixture of regular dirt and composted chicken litter from Andrea's parent's farm. Before we knew it the lemon balm was taking over like a pretty plague that smelled good. We tried to kill it, we tried to dig it up...nothing. Like the Energizer bunny it just kept on going. Then we discovered that, while it was an epidemic in the flower bed, there were some mighty good things about lemon balm.
According to Earl Mindell in his Herb Bible lemon balm originated in Asia and has sense propagated all over the globe, to include our flower bed in North Carolina. Like many other medicinal herbs lemon balm has a long list of benefits. These include helping with upset stomachs, insomnia, gas and colic. It is also a mild diaphoretic which means that it helps induce sweating when taken warm. This can help break fevers when one is ill. Some studies have even claimed that lemon balm cream helps to treat the version of herpes that causes cold sores around the mouth.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of this hardy little herb is the taste. As the name implies it does have a scent and taste that is akin to lemon which makes it perfect for teas. I have used our lemon balm in a warm, evening tea in concert with chamomile. 1 teaspoon of chamomile and a few leaves of lemon balm steeped for 10-15 minutes in hot water has become my favorite "night cap." When it is growing I'll use fresh leaves crushed in my hands but now that it is winter I've had equal success using dried leaves. This tea is so good it requires no additional sweeteners like honey.
Another use that I've been exploring for lemon balm is an infused oil. For this I crushed about 1 cup of dried lemon balm leaves into a jar and covered them with olive oil. I let this sit in a sunny window for about 3-4 weeks then strained it out into the jar you see below. My intention is to use this in salves but recently I have witnessed and new, and unexpected use...salad dressing. My mother is on a special diet that does not allow her to eat vinegar (along with a laundry list of other things) so she only puts olive oil on her salads. She and my step-father were over for supper one night and she was about to use regular olive oil for her salad. "Hey I've got some lemon balm oil. You could use that if you want," said I. "Oh boy! I'll try it," said she. As it turns out the light flavor of lemon balm in the oil made a pretty good salad dressing. Who knew?
As for growing and maintaining lemon balm it is pretty simply. Like most other varieties of mint it is nearly impossible to kill and the best thing to do is put it in a place where you don't care if it takes over. What we started with at our former home was just a chunk of it that we dug up from the farm and transplanted. We've done the same thing for our new house though we haven't put it in the ground yet. It does enjoy the sun so I wonder if putting it in a shadier area would help stunt the growth.
In the end, lemon balm is a prolific and useful herb for medicinal and culinary use. It is easy to grow and maintain and it makes and absolutely wonderful and calming tea. So, if you have some space in your garden give it a shot and enjoy the bountiful harvest!