Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis L.)
Family: Lamiaceae


      Melissa officinalis, known as lemon balm, is a bushy perennial herb in the mint family Lamiaceae.
It is 50cm to 80cm tall with a four-edged, branching, sparsely-haired stalk. The opposed leaves, whose stalked stems vary in length, are broadly oval to heart-shaped and have an irregular crenate (rounded teeth) or serrate (small, sharp teeth) edge. The dark green upper surface of the leaf is sparsely haired and has very prominent veins.
      Pale white labial flowers, which are approximately 1cm in size, grow from the leaf axils in semi-verticils. The aroma of the flowers and crushed leaves is spicy-aromatic and strongly reminiscent of lemons. Lemon Balm flowers from June to September.

 melissa1 melissa2 

Historical information. The word Melissa is the abbreviated Middle Latin form of the Greek word melissóphyllon, which means ’bee leaf‘.  The name comes from the Greek word mélissa or mélitta meaning bee itself derived from meli meaning honey. Officinalis is New Latin and means ‘in use pharmaceutically’. In antiquity, Lemon Balm was cultivated as a food for bees. Virgil and Pliny reported that, due to its strong aroma, leaves of Lemon Balm were rubbed on new beehives to entice the bees.

      The medical use of Lemon Balm has a 2000 year old tradition. In the 10th century, Arab physicians used the plant to fortify the heart and to treat melancholy. In the Capitularies of Charlemagne the order was given for Lemon Balm to be planted in every cloister garden.
      Early herbalists and writers praised lemon balm for its medicinal and uplifting qualities. Eleventh century Persian physician and philosopher Avicenna was an early advocate for the use of lemon balm in treating depression/melancholy. According to an old Arabian proverb, “Balm makes the heart merry and joyful.”

      First century Greek physician Dioscorides wrote that lemon balm would promote menstruation, improve gout, remedy toothaches and if mixed with wine, could be used to treat scorpion stings and dog bites. 

Geographic Distribution. Lemon balm is native to south-central Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean region, and Central Asia. In North America, it has escaped cultivation and spread into the wild. 

Habitat. Woodland garden sunny edge, dappled shade, shady edge.

Chemical composition. Although over 100 chemicals have been identified in Lemon balm, the main components of the essential oil are citral (neral and geranial), citronellal, linalool, geraniol and (β-caryophyllene-oxide. Lemon balm's lemony flavor and aroma are due largely to citral and citronellal, although other phytochemicals, including geraniol (which is rose-scented) and linalool (which is lavender-scented) also contribute to lemon balm’s scent.

      Lemon balm is high in flavonoids, which can have an antioxidant effect. Other phytochemicals in lemon balm which may provide antioxidant activity include phenolic acids, terpenes, rosmarinic acid and caffeic acids. Lemon balm also contains tannins, which are astringent and contribute to lemon balm’s antiviral effects, and eugenol acetate, which is believed to be one of the phytochemicals responsible for lemon balm’s reported antispasmodic effect. 

Medicinal uses. Lemon balm has a long history of medicinal use for a variety of ailments. The plant was believed to remedy so many different conditions that it was once considered “an herbal cure-all". Although it has been used primarily for depression/anxiety, insomnia and dyspepsia, the long list of maladies for which lemon balm has traditionally been used also include bronchitis, asthma, coughs, fever, menstrual problems, hypertension, migraines, shock, vertigo, eczema/skin problems, gout, insect bites/stings, snake bites and skin infections. Some even believed the plant would remedy baldness.

      Lemon balm has a long-standing reputation as a calming and uplifting herb, and recent research has begun to confirm this traditional use. The hydroalcoholic extract exhibited sedative effects on the central nervous system in animal studies. A study published in 2004 in Psychosomatic Medicine involving human volunteers showed that a 600 mg dose of standardized M. officinalis extract improved mood, calmness and alertness, and a 300 mg dose increased the subjects’ mathematical processing speed.

      Historically, lemon balm was believed to sharpen memory and a 2002 study demonstrated that while lemon balm did not improve memory measures like word recall and spatial and numeric memory, it did improve attention. However, a study published in 2003 showed that 1600 mg of dried leaf improved memory and calmness. The authors suggest that the effect on mood and cognitive performance may make lemon balm useful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

      Lemon balm has documented antiviral effects. Some studies involving human subjects have shown that topical preparations of lemon balm are effective against herpes simplex.



Useful links:
The Herb Society of America: Lemon Balm Guide
University of Maryland Medical Center: Lemon balm