History of Lemon Balm
Lemon balm is a happy, sunny herb that has been used for thousands of years. Especially important to the Ancient Greeks, lemon balm is known for its bee-attracting qualities and soothing and rejuvenating properties. Once nicknamed the “elixir of youth”, lemon balm is a delightful herb to grow in a fairy garden and is associated with healing, love, success, and luck, among other things. Let’s explore this beautiful springtime herb in all its glory.
Who is Melissa?
Lemon balm’s official name is Melissa officinalis. I learned this years ago, and I always wondered, somewhere in the back of my head…who is Melissa? The mystery of Melissa has been solved my friends, and the answer is sweet and lovely.
Officinalis refers to “of the workshop”, i.e. the apothecary or medieval pharmacy. Melissa, however, refers to honey. Let me break it down. The name Melissa comes from the Greek “melissa”, which comes from “melitos” which means honey. The Proto-Indo-European root is “melit-ya”, of which the root word “melit” means honey. In hindsight, the connection seems obvious (I know a bit of Spanish, so I know miel means honey!). In Rome lemon balm was called “apiatrum”, which comes from their word “apis” for bee. Lemon balm’s official Latin name playfully connotes “honeybee”, which is a fitting name as we shall soon discover.
As for the English lemon balm, we have the word balm, which comes from the Latin “balsam”. This word hinted at perfumed anointing oils or “any aromatic preparation used in healing wounds or soothing pain”. Lemon comes from the fact that lemon balm smells and tastes a lot like lemon. Lemon balm has also been called balm, Bee Balm, Bee’s Leaf, Honey Plant, Melissa, and Sweet Balm.
A Bee’s Best Friend
Lemon balm’s connection to bees is one of its most famous associations. As far back as 3000 BC there is a reference to lemon balm as “honey-leaf in the Historia Plantarum. The Greeks held many beliefs about lemon balm and bees. One such belief was that if lemon balm grew near the hive, the bees would never leave. They also thought that bees used the scent of lemon balm to bring them back to the hive. Greek beekeepers sometimes rubbed lemon balm on their hives to give a sort of welcome home to their bees.
In North America, people of the Cherokee tribe called balm “wa du li si”, which means bee.
Lemon balm resembles mint. Lemon balm is in the mint family of plants and as it grows, it produces small white flowers. It is these flowers that attract the bees. According to a Herb Society of America guide: ” the plant contains several compounds found in the worker honeybee’s Nasonov gland, which helps bees communicate about food sources and hive location. Both contain citral and geraniol, and honeybee pheromone contains nerolic acid, which is similar to the nerol found in Melissa officinalis”, which shows that these ancient associations were correct.
Medicinal & Culinary Uses of Lemon Balm
As lemon balm has been called the “elixir of youth” or the “elixir of life”, it is clear that the herb has a long medicinal history. Most herbalists recorded lemon balm to effect some sort of refreshing and joyful disposition in people. It was also used to perk up the mind and help aid in memory. It also was thought to have a calming effect on those who drank tisanes or tinctures with lemon balm. Like other plants in the mint family, lemon balm was also used to aid in digestion and reduce gas after eating.
In addition to these mental benefits, lemon balm was used as a salve or compress on stings, wounds, and to help sooth pain. Modern testing has shown that lemon balm does indeed contain antiseptic properties and does aid in cleaning wounds. Carmelite Water, a special medicinal mixture made by Carmelite nuns in the 14th Century, contained lemon peel, lemon balm, nutmeg, and angelica. This mixture was used for general health and is still sold today under the variant Klosterfrau Melissengeist.
Lemon balm is used in a few culinary dishes, mostly for its light lemon flavor. It is great for salad dressings and teas, and can be used to flavor meat such as poultry or fish.
Although not a medicinal or culinary use, lemon balm is also included in some toothpastes, perfumes, and in furniture polish.
Lemon Balm Folklore
Lemon balm folklore mostly centers around the idea of its ability to extend life and heal. The Greeks believed this idea as did subsequent cultures. Price Llewellyn of Wales (and according to some sources, Prince Charles V of France) is rumored to have used lemon balm in his tea every single day. The result of this practice is that he lived to 108 years old. (I couldn’t verify this legend as fact, but as with most folklore this is the case). Another such tale says that Englishman John Hussey drank lemon balm tea with honey every morning for 50 years and lived to be 116.
One funny tidbit about lemon balm’s ability to elongate life is the story of Louis XIV’s again chickens. According the The Complete Herbal, “one of Louis XIV’s physicians, Lesebure, tried this [lemon balm] out on an elderly chicken, which within a few days lost its tattered plumage, grew fresh feathers and started to lay eggs again”. How fun!
Lemon balm was also associated with love, especially the idea that it could send messages between lovers. Priestesses of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, were called Melissa. Lemon balm was associated with workings of these priestesses, therefore it took on associations with love and sympathy. In some cases, lemon balm was used in baths to perfume the water and attract love.
Perhaps a later addition to lemon balm’s folklore is its association with fairies. It is often recommended as an herb to grow in a fairy garden. There are even a series of children’s books, The Herb Fairies, which have a character named Melissa, the Lemon Balm Fairy. I even found this adorable crocheted version of the character.
In Arab cultures, lemon balm was thought to have mystical powers, as well as soothing properties.
In Magickal Workings
As you may have guessed, lemon balm’s magickal properties mirror its medicinal and folkloric energies. Lemon balm is a sunny, calming, happy herb that can be used in many different spells and magickal kitchen workings. You can use lemon balm for:
- Fairy magick
Lemon balm is a very easy herb to grow (and like mint it will take over the garden if you aren’t careful!). This is great news because as a practitioner you can easily grow fresh lemon balm to use in your rituals and spells. You can make a fresh lemon balm tea and share it with friends or lovers to increase your bond or create a happy mood. You can use lemon balm in sachets or charms to give you good luck in your daily endeavors. Growing lemon balm can attract fairies (or just bees) and brighten your doorstep and home. I stole this idea, but you can write an intention on a small piece of paper, wrap it in a fresh lemon balm leaf, and carry it with you until the intention manifests. There are so many great magickal thins you can do with lemon balm. Even just having it around will brighten your mood.
Lemon Balm Recipe
For the lemon balm recipe I am going for super simple. Lemon balm is so lovely on its own that to mix it would be unnecessary. Therefore, we are going with a simple lemon balm tea. This recipe calls for a bit of green tea as well, but you can skip this addition if you want. All you’ll need is a handful of fresh lemon balm leaves, a bag or two of green tea, and water. Honey or another sweetener if desired.