The summer’s intensifying heat and sunlight have brought many plants into full, radiant expression on Cloud 9’s rooftop garden at Guild House West in Fairmount. This month, Cloud 9 kicked off our bi-weekly Summer Herbal Workshop series with residents, highlighting some plants including many common ones of the prolific mint (Lamiaceae) family like peppermint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint, spearmint, lemon balm, and shiso. During the first workshop, we harvested mint from the grounds and rooftop gardens, sampled the fresh herbs, spoke about the medicinal and culinary benefits of these plants, and made fresh mint infusions for residents to experience. (1)
For those eager to establish a useful and abundant kitchen and medicinal garden, mint family plants – representing 3500 species in 180 genera worldwide – are among the easiest to identify, grow, and use. All mint family plants share certain botanical characteristics: distinctly square stalks, opposite leaves, and a rich supply of aromatic volatile oils – what gives mint family plants, such as popular culinary herbs rosemary, basil, marjoram, thyme, savory, and horehound, their characteristic spicy, stimulating and warming flavors. Mint family plants are easy to establish, too. Their tiny seeds germinate quickly, their vigorous root systems may be divided for establishing new stands of plants, and they’re largely tolerant of varying sunlight and watering conditions – making this family of plants an accessible one for the beginning and experienced gardener alike.
Medicinally, mint family plants are useful for their ability to stimulate and warm the body – increasing sweating which helps to cool the body while also serving to stimulate digestion and relieve gas and digestive cramping. As mint family plants heat the body, sweat can break the surface of the skin, carrying excess heat along with it, which is referred to by herbalists as the plant exhibiting a diaphoretic action. Diaphoretic herbs are especially useful in assisting with breaking fevers as the rich volatile oils exhibit an antimicrobial effect as they warm the body, allowing the immune system to fight off viruses and infections.
Learning about and experiencing each plant individually – engaging all of your senses to touch, taste, smell, observe, feel the plant and observe its action in the body – is a useful way to get acquainted with new plants you may consider growing in your garden or adding to your home medicine chest. Allow us to introduce you to lemon balm, a plant that embodies the essence of summer’s warmth and brightness.
Herb spotlight: Lemon Balm
As delicious as it is potent, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a herbaceous perennial belonging to the mint family whose bright, citrus flavor and scent, uplifting energy, and powerful volatile oils (citral, citronellal) make it a valuable ally to those of all ages needing support with restful sleep, comfort from anxiety, depression or nervous tension, digestive cramping, urinary troubles, headaches, and for those warding off viral infections or cold sores.
Native to southern Europe, the plant was brought to Spain by the Moors in the 7th century and by the Middle Ages was cultivated throughout Europe – with its earliest recorded use dating as far back as 300 B.C. in Theophrastus’s materia medica Historia Plantarum (2).
Today, it’s grown throughout much of the world favoring scrubby and sandy areas – from North America to New Zealand (2). Lemon balm is a fast growing plant that develops scalloped edged leaves on square-stalks with small, cream-colored, yellow, or pinkish fused flowers that are displayed in whorls. The plant prefers well drained soil and indirect sunlight, but can thrive just as well in full sunlight, as it does on the Cloud 9 rooftop, and can reach heights from 8 inches to up to 5 feet. Because it spreads vigorously and self-seeds, lemon balm makes for a great addition to container gardens. Out in the garden, sturdy stands of lemon balm help to prevent against weeds, prevent soil erosion, and make for an attractive hedge.
Drawing its Latin name Melissa from the Greek meaning bee, lemon balm has long been associated with these pivotal pollinators. It’s been found that the plant constituent nerol in lemon balm is similar to nerolic acid in honeybees’ Nasonov gland, which helps bees communicate about food sources and hive locations. This association has earned lemon balm the common name ‘bee balm’ as bees can often be found fondly buzzing about it, though it’s not to be confused with the other commonly known bee balm, Monarda fistulosa. ‘Balm’ in its common name refers to the plant’s oily, sweet smelling resins.
Medicinally, lemon balm has a wide expanse of historical and contemporary applications. Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) believed lemon balm to be an “elixir of life” that would strengthen one’s life force and Nicholas Culpepper (1616-1654) believed it to “driveth away melancholy.” Many contemporary herbalists rely on the plant for its actions as a nervine, mild sedative calming agent, antidepressant, mild antispasmodic, diaphoretic, and for its antioxidant properties that fight free radical or oxidative damage.
Archetypally, I find this plant to be a great support for melancholic people with cold digestive disorders who believe their burdens are too much to share, overheated or irriated children, especially during recovery from illness/teething, and for those for whom restful sleep is difficult due to tension of the mind or spirit and feel caught in limbo of indecision.
High in vitamin C and rich in thiamine, the fresh leaves with all their aromatic lemony goodness can be incorporated into teas/beverages, baked goods, sorbets, savory meat, vegetable and fish dishes and more, as well as dried in a brown paper bag or on a clean windowscreen to be saved for later use.
To make a simple infusion, cover 2 TB of fresh chopped leaves with boiling water and infuse for 10 minutes. Strain and enjoy!
Or try this refreshing Lemon Balm Lemonade Cooler from the Good Earth Good Food Alliance (5): 4 lemons
1/3 cup fresh lemon balm leaves
1/2 cup sugar
2/3 cup boiling water
2 1/2 cups water
2-3 sprigs lemon balm for decoration
Scrub lemons, peel the rind thinly avoiding the white; set aside.
Place the lemon rind, lemon balm leaves and the sugar into a small heat-proof pitcher. pour the boiling water into the pitcher and stir well, crushing the lemon balm leaves to release their flavor. Leaves to infuse for about 15 minutes, let steep 15 minutes.
Cut lemons in half and squeeze out the juice. Strain juice into pitcher, add a few fresh sprigs of lemon balm, add the cooled, strained syrup. Top with water and ice.