If you could have a herb come with a 400 year old lemon clad guarantee to “maketh the hart merrie and joiful and strengtheneth the vitall spirits” wouldn’t you welcome it into your garden with open arms? These ancient words are those of John Gerard circa 1597 and the herb he waxed poetic about is none other than the 2007 Herb of the Year – Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm).
It’s about time this magnificent herb got the recognition it deserves. Okay, okay, I can hear the snarky whispers from here. “Lemon balm magnificent? Why, it’s practically a weed!” Over the years, the thing that I have noticed about herbs is that the more they seem to stand their ground the more incredible their medicinal qualities. I think it’s all part of the grand design. Nature’s way of making sure we don’t overlook the plants that have potential to do us the most good. My theory would certainly go a long way in explaining why the dandelion is one of the most beneficial herbs on earth. But this post is about the lemon balm, so I’m afraid the very real merits of the dandelion will have to wait its turn.
Lemon balm tea is known for its ability to “calm you when you’re wired and boost you when you’re tired.” Simply toss a few sprigs into a pot of boiled water and let your exhaustion and worries waft away like a careless summer breeze. In fact, if you make a habit of imbibing in lemon balm tea, your only worry will be saving enough money for your retirement fund. Consider John Hussey, of Sydenhan. For his last 50 years John started his day with a lemon balm tea and lived to be 116. Llewely Prince of Glamorgan was also partial to a daily cup or two of lemon balm tea, and lived to be 108. Coincidence? Perhaps, but even if it is there are certainly worse ways to kick off your day than with the citrusy delights of a lemon balm tea harvested from your very own garden. And if you invest the savings from replacing that expensive designer coffee you usually pick up on your way to work, you won’t even have to worry about your retirement fund.
Lemon balm is a robust plant capable of growing up to 40 inches (one metre). There are three varieties of note. Melissa offinalis is the most commonly grown and the one that won the accolades in 2007. With its vibrant green, deeply etched, perfectly scalloped leaves it presents a beautiful looking bush. Its flowers are less impressive, but bees seem to find the wee white blossoms irresistible, making lemon balm an excellent herb for attracting these helpful little pollinators to your garden. According to ancient lore, bee keepers used to rub their hives with lemon balm leaves to keep their bees from swarming!
Melissa officinalis will tolerate some shade, but prefers to frolic in full sun. It will thrive in rich soil, but its flavour and scent will be far more intense if grown in poorer soil. Either way, the soil must be well drained. The second variety to consider is the golden leafed All Gold which, conversely, best holds its rich colour when grown in the shade. If you only have room for one lemon balm, but you can’t decide between green or yellow then the third variety is the one for you – Aurea, also known as Variegata, boasts a combination of green and yellow leaves that maintain their colour even when planted in full sun, but like All Gold prefers partial shade. Divisions can be taken from three to four year old plants or it can be started from seed. Since the seed is so tiny its best to fill a flat with potting mix, water it well and press the mix down firmly before sprinkling the seeds on top and gently pressing them into the soil. Cover with a clear sheet of plastic wrap and mist often to keep the seeds from drying out. Germination can take anywhere from two weeks to a month. Longevity and landscaping aside, the best thing about this herb is its smell. The plant fairly oozes with zesty lemon fragrance. You barely have to brush it for the scent to fill the air. I can never walk past mine without plucking a leaf just for the simple joy of smelling it.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, a herb this magnificent deserves to have an entire summer afternoon devoted to its celebration! Here’s how. Start by mixing a batch of lemonade; or in this case lemonbalmade. You can make a fabulous calorie-free drink by simply crushing some lemon balm leaves into a pitcher along with a few leaves of stevia for sweetener, and topping it off with boiling water. If you like, squeeze in a few lemons as well. Refrigerate until chilled. Place one small lemon balm leaf and some of their precious white blossoms into each compartment of an ice cube tray – rose petals or viola blossoms also look nice – then fill as usual. For crystal clear cubes, be sure to use distilled water. While you’re waiting for the lemonbalmade to chill and your Martha Stewart cubes to freeze, dig out those linen napkins you got for a wedding gift but have never used. The time has finally come! Now pick a long stem of lemon balm and tie it around the napkin and place it on the table in the gazebo in preparation for celebration. If you don’t have a gazebo, haul a card table out to the middle of the garden and use that instead. Next, pick some more long stems of lemon balm and then weave them in and out of each other to create a place mat. Polish up the crystal goblets. Since you now have place mats, you might as well break out the china, and while you’re at it, some lemon balm cake to go on it. It doesn’t take long to whip up a batch. Here’s a recipe:
Lemon Balm Tea Cake
177 ml (3/4 cup) milk
60 ml (4 tablespoons) fresh lemon balm
500 ml (2 cups) plain flour
7.5 ml (1 1/2 teaspoons) baking powder
1.5 ml (1/4 teaspoon salt
90 ml (6 tablespoons) butter
250 ml (1 cup) sugar
15 ml (1 tablespoon) grated lemon rind
Place milk in small pan, add lemon balm, and heat until almost scalded.
Remove from heat and leave until cool. Meanwhile mix the flour, baking
powder, and salt together in a bowl. In a separate bowl, cream butter and
sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, continuing beating.
Blend in the lemon rind. Strain the lemon balm milk, discard the leaves, and
add the milk and the flour mixture alternately to the batter. Mix until just
blended. Pour the batter into a greased loaf pan. Bake at 325 F (160 C) for
50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.
Remove from pan onto a wire rack placed over a sheet of waxed paper. Pour
lemon glaze* while the loaf is still hot.
juice of 2 lemons
5 ml (1 teaspoon) finely chopped lemon balm leaves
Put the lemon juice into a bowl and blend in icing sugar until a thick, but
still pourable, paste forms. Pour over the hot loaf.
While the tea cake is cooling, the lemonbalmade chilling, and the ice cubes freezing, don your long dress and floppy garden hat. Don’t even try telling me you don’t have at least one set hid away somewhere. After all, it’s part of every gardener’s secret fantasy. Or at least every female gardener. When you’re down there in the dirt on your hands and knees wrestling weeds and pushing the dog’s butt out of your face after a sweaty morning spent shoveling manure, the fantasy begins to stir. You sit back on your heels, close your eyes, and there you are strolling through your perfect garden in said dress and hat, looking clean and fabulous, with one of those wicker garden hods draped over your arm while you ever so prettily snip off some flowers for the parlour bouquet. Your lemon balm celebration is the perfect excuse to finally bring this fantasy to life. Don’t wait until the weeds are plucked, or the lawn is edged, or it’s never going to happen. Put on that dress, grab a basket, get out there and snip a bouquet for the table. Be sure to include lemon balm.
Now what to do with all the lemonbalmade and lemon balm cakes? Why not phone a few friends to come over for a lemon balm garden party. Tell the girls to wear their dress and hat. The guys can don them too, if they like. Who am I to judge? And if you want to add a dab of gin or vodka to the lemonade and get balmed, go right ahead. I’ll never tell. When the party is over, and the guests have lifted their long dresses and sailed on home, scoop up all the lemon balm place mats and take them with you for a relaxing bath. Bunch the balm together with an elastic band at one end and then snap the band over the faucet so the hot running water cascades over the leaves, and you have yourself a celebratory lemon scented bath fit for a garden queen. Or king. Or both. Goodness knows there will be time enough for wallowing in the soil and pulling weeds tomorrow. Today take the time to relax and celebrate your herbaceous life. Both you and Melissa officinalis deserve it.