Lemon Balm (Melissa Officinalis)
An arrestingly bright green, bushy aromatic herb and a member of the mint family with leaves of a similar shape. Refreshingly citrus scented, lemon balm tastes rather like it smells, adding a subtle lemony addition to your kitchen.
Lemon balm leaves are a marvellous addition to pesto adding a perfect tanginess which marries well with the other ingredients, balancing the oil and cheese and complementing the nuts. It is also a perfect partner for, in particular, fruit and fish dishes, delicious chopped finely and sprinkled on a fruit salad.
Its culinary uses make a long list but to mention a very few others, it will add a zesty twist to mousses, ice creams and fools, savoury sauces and raw salsas.
Lemon balm, dedicated to the goddess Diana in ancient times, is also known as Melissa, the Greek for bee, and is still loved by beekeepers who plant it round their hives to prevent swarming.
It had a mention in The London Dispensary 1696 with a claim to ‘renew youth, strengthen the brain and reduce baldness’ with one of its other merits being its ability to ‘revivify a man’. This, it would appear, was borne out by two lemon balm supporters – the 13th century Llewellyn, Prince of Glamorgan, who lived till the impressive age of 108 and another called John Hussey of Sydenham who staggered on to 116 – both regularly revivified.
Lemon balm has great antiviral properties and still today a leaf can be chewed to freshen breath, while a dose of lemon balm syrup at bedtime can aid a good night’s sleep with its proven benefits to the nervous system.
As I mentioned, lemon balm is related to mint and this is certainly apparent in its shared ability to run riot in your garden. A hardy perennial, it can be grown from seed or simply divide an established plant in Spring, but take heed and plant in a container not your herb bed and place in full sun.
Golden lemon balm which has more yellow leaves and prefers some shade and adds a vivid splash of colour to your salads. Variegated lemon balm (Melissa officinalis Aurea) which has a milder flavour than the straight green variety.