To truly obtain a full understanding of lemon balm, within ancient historical context, we must look to the scientific name ‘Melissa officinalis’ for the beginning clues.
The mystique that surrounds lemon balm is rich and spans thousands of years beginning in ancient Ephesus, known today as Turkey. It is here we begin to understand where lemon balm’s scientific name originates as well as its magical attributes and cherished healing powers.
Lemon balm’s herbal use dates back over 2000 years. The ancient Greeks and Romans used it medicinally, and information about the herb was recorded as far back as 300 B.C. in Theophrastus’s Historia Plantarum. The plant likely originated in Southern Europe and was brought to Spain by the Moors in the 7th century; by the Middle Ages it was cultivated and used throughout Europe . The genus name, Melissa, means “bee” in Greek, and the plant was likely named for its reputed ability to attract bees. First century Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, wrote that lemon balm planted near bee hives would encourage bees to return, and Gerard later claimed that rubbing the leaves on a hive would “causeth the Bees to keep together and causeth others to come unto them”.
The specific epithet, officinalis, means “used in medicine” indicating that the species had historic medicinal uses. The common name is derived from the Greek word balsamon, which means balsam, or “an oily, sweet-smelling resin. 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.” Paracelsus claimed this herb could completely revitalise the body and called it the "elixir of life", and 14th century French King Charles V drank its tea every day to keep his health.
The famous Carmelite Water, first made by 17ty century Carmelite nuns to treat nervous headache and neuralgia, combined lemon balm with lemon-peel, nutmeg, coriander and angelica root. Sacred to the temple of Diana, lemon balm was called "heart's delight" in southern Europe. Its virtue of dispelling melancholy has been praised by herbal writers for centuries, and it is still used today in aromatherapy to counter depression.
Lemon balm's main action is as a tranquilliser. It calms a nervous stomach, colic, or heart spasms. The leaves are reputed to also lower blood pressure. It is very gentle, although effective, so is often suggested for children and babies. The hot tea brings on a sweat that is good for relieving colds, flus and fevers and an antiviral agent has been found that combats mumps, cold sores and other viruses. The tea has also been shown to inhibit the division of tumour cells. Studies indicate that the herb slightly inhibits the thyroid stimulating hormone and restricts Grave's disease, a hyperthyroid condition.
The lemon balm plant reportedly cleanses the skin, and herbal steams containing lemon balm leaves are recommended for sufferers of acne. Cleansing herbal baths including the plant's leaves may also benefit the complexion. Lemon balm essential oil is a common ingredient in homemade and commercial cosmetics formulated for oily or acne-prone skin. Widely believed to have antibacterial, anti-ageing, and antiviral properties, there are several topical uses of lemon balm. Ointments made from lemon balm can be used to soothe the irritation caused by insect bites or minor cuts and scrapes. Cold sores and acne outbreaks may also benefit from its use. Some studies have indicated that lemon balm may have anti-ageing properties, so it may be beneficial to add this ingredient to a favourite lotion or skin moisturiser. A few of the leaves from this plant can be added to bath water to help ease the discomfort associated with sore muscles.
Another herbal remedy not to be missed!