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melissa officinalis L.
Balm is a shortened form of balsam, deriving from Latin balsamum "balsam tree", which was also used for the resin obtained therefrom. The ultimate source of the word is Hebrew bosem, which equally denotes the tree (extinct since the early Middle Ages) or just "fragrace" or "spice" in general.
The Latin name melissa was coined in the Middle Ages from Greek melisso-ph˛llon "bee-leave", because the plant is rich in nectar and commonly planted to feed bees (cf. the English name bee balm); the name is related to Latin mel "honey" and also marmalade.
Baume, Citronelle, Mélisse, Herbe citron
Melisse, Zitronenmelisse, Herztrost
Melissa, Cedronella, Citronella, Erba limona
Used plant part
Plantae; Spermatophyta, Angiospermae - Flowering Plants; Dicotyledonae; Lamiidae / Tubiflorae; Lamiales; Labiatae / Lamiaceae - Mint Family
Description of the substance
A native of South Europe, especially in mountainous situations, but is naturalized in the south of England, and was introduced into our gardens at a very early period.
The root-stock is short, the stem square and branching, grows 1 to 2 feet high, and has at each joint pairs of broadly ovate or heart-shaped, crenate or toothed leaves which emit a fragrant lemon odour when bruised. They also have a distinct lemon taste. The flowers, white or yellowish, are in loose, small bunches from the axils of the leaves and bloom from June to October. The plant dies down in winter, but the root is perennial.
Lemon balm is less a spice than a medical herb, in past times much used against stomach ailment and nervous conditions. It has, however, some value as spice, because of its fresh and pure lemon taste, which makes it a perfect substitute for fresh lemon grass or (in dried form) sassafras.
In Central Europe, lemon balm is sometimes used to flavour sweet drinks. The leaves make an interesting decoration on many dishes and may be used generously if you (and your guests) like the aroma. They fit best to fish, poultry and salads; it is also suggested to use balm leaves for any dish containing lemon juice to get a more intensive lemon aroma. If available, the fresh leaves are to be preferred. True lovers of this herb may want to try a pesto made of lemon balm leaves instead of basil.
It was highly esteemed by Paracelsus, who believed it would completely revivify a man. It was formerly esteemed of great use in all complaints supposed to proceed from a disordered state of the nervous system. The London Dispensary (1696) says: 'An essence of Balm, given in Canary wine, every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature and prevent baldness.' John Evelyn wrote: 'Balm is sovereign for the brain, strengthening the memory and powerfully chasing away melancholy.' Balm steeped in wine we are told again, 'comforts the heart and driveth away melancholy and sadness.' Formerly a spirit of Balm, combined with lemon-peel, nutmeg and angelica root, enjoyed a great reputation under the name of Carmelite water, being deemed highly useful against nervous headache and neuralgic affections. Many virtues were formerly ascribed to this plant. Gerard says: 'It is profitably planted where bees are kept. The hives of bees being rubbed with the leaves of bawme, causeth the bees to keep together, and causeth others to come with them.' And again quoting Pliny, 'When they are strayed away, they do find their way home by it.' Pliny says: 'It is of so great virtue that though it be but tied to his sword that hath given the wound it stauncheth the blood.' Gerard also tells us: 'The juice of Balm glueth together greene wounds,' and gives the opinion of Pliny and Dioscorides that 'Balm, being leaves steeped in wine, and the wine drunk, and the leaves applied externally, were considered to be a certain cure for the bites of venomous beasts and the stings of scorpions. It is now recognized as a scientific fact that the balsamic oils of aromatic plants make excellent surgical dressings: they give off ozone and thus exercise anti-putrescent effects. Being chemical hydrocarbons, they contain so little oxygen that in wounds dressed with the fixed balsamic herbal oils, the atomic germs of disease are starved out, and the resinous parts of these balsamic oils, as they dry upon the sore or wound, seal it up and effectually exclude all noxious air.
Balm grows freely in any soil and can be propagated by seeds, cuttings or division of roots in spring or autumn. If in autumn, preferably not later than October, so that the offsets may be established before the frosts come on. The roots may be divided into small pieces, with three or four buds to each, and planted 2 feet apart in ordinary garden soil. The only culture required is to keep them clean from weeds and to cut off the decayed stalks in autumn, and then to stir the ground between the roots.