When I first learned about herbs, it opened new dimensions in gardening and cooking. Old friends like sage and rosemary showed me surprising uses and interesting histories. I also uncovered new delightful herbs. One of my favorite early discoveries was luscious lemon balm.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a hardy perennial to Zone 5. It can grow to three feet high in ideal conditions, although it usually only reaches two feet in my North Texas garden. The leaves are bright green and about two inches long with toothed edges. Although lemon balm is a member of the mint family it is a less aggressive spreader. To the casual glance the leaves resemble spearmint leaves, probably why it’s sometimes mis-identified as lemon mint.
Lemon balm has long been associated with bees. The botanical name “melissa” is derived from the Greek word for bee. Medieval beekeepers would rub lemon balm on the inside of a beehive to encourage bees to nest there. Anyone who has grown this herb will testify that the flowers, though small, will attract bees, making it a perfect addition to a pollinator-friendly garden.
Growing Tips For Hot Climate Gardeners
Lemon balm is listed as a hardy perennial but that is only true if it has sufficient water and shade during summers. When I first moved to Texas, I had trouble finding a spot for it so I used my “divide and conquer” technique to discover where it would grow best. I planted one lemon balm in a sheltered but hot area, another in the morning sun next to a sidewalk, and a third in a north facing shaded location,
Within a month I had clear results from my test. The lemon balm in the sheltered area survived but was clearly unhappy. The plant by the sidewalk burned in the searing morning heat. But the one I planted in the north shade garden was lush and green.
Lemon balm propagates easily by seed. If you have good conditions in your garden for this herb, be prepared in spring to find young plants sprouting up in unexpected places. Because it is shallow rooted it may find inconvenient places to grow. One summer I discovered some lemon balm growing happily in a dense clump of canna lilies. The only way I could get it out was to dig the whole thing up and manually separate the lemon balm from the canna lily tubers.
Lemon balm stems and leaves are not frost hardy.At the first sign of freezing temperatures, make your final harvest cut. Then clip the remaining stems down to the ground and wait for spring to revive the plant.
Using and Enjoying This Herb
As you might guess, lemon balm has a wonderful lemon scent and flavor. It can be harvested anytime during the growing season. The leaves can be used fresh in hot or iced teas and fruit drinks or dried and added to potpourris, bath salts, and other aromatic preparations.
Next time you’re adding herbs to your garden make room for some lemon balm. It’s cheerful green leaves and uplifting scent will be a pleasure for you and your family all year long.