When we take a stroll through our herb gardens, it is often easy to take some plants for granted. If we grow Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), we may consider it merely a tea herb, a slightly relaxing and pleasant beverage. Perhaps we combine it with Catnip. Lemon Balm probably does not stand out, yet it is one of the most storied herbs of history and lore. Lemon Balm was once an herb of great religious significance, thought to be magical and has been one of the primary herbs used for healing for millennia.
Lemon Balm’s Latin name, “Melissa” derives from its significance in ancient mythology (while officinalis signifies that it was an official herb used in Monastic Medicine, especially for the Benedictines). Lemon Balm is especially associated with bees, the Greek word for bee being “melissa”. But, the associations of this name have more interesting origins. The bee had deep religious significance in the mythology of ancient Turkey, then called Ephesus. Dr. John R. Christopher tells us (herballegacy.com/Morrison_History.html):
In the Ephesian ceremonial the life of the bee was the model: the Great Goddess was the queen bee, the mother of her people, and her image was in outline not unlike the bee, with a grotesque mixture of the human form: her priestesses were called Melissai…”. Within ancient Greece religious doctrine, the Melissai priestesses served the Great Mother (Rhea or Cybele) or the Goddess of Earth and Nature such as Demeter, Persephone, and especially Artemis. The honeybee was considered to be a form the human soul took when descending from the Goddess Artemis herself.
“It was only those souls who had lived a righteous life who were called Melissae, and afterwards they returned to heaven, just as the bee returned to her hive.” Bees were not only important in the cosmology of ancient man but also in their commerce (honey, wax). Thus anything that helped to attract the valued honeybees to a hive, or keep the honeybees from swarming, gained in stature and usage to man as well. This is where lemon balm enters recorded history. Lemon balm was a sacred herb in the Temple of Artemis/Diana, and the herb that assisted the ancient beekeepers in keeping honeybees happy and well fed with nectar.
Pliny wrote of Lemon Balm’s association with bees in his Natural History, but also indicated how highly the ancient Greeks held this herb in regard to what they believed as its magical qualities. He stated that if Lemon Balm was tied to a sword with which one had been injured, the bleeding of the wound would stop. Dioscorides was more practical in his listing for Lemon Balm:
Melissophyllum some call melittena because bees delight in the herb. The leaves and little stalk are similar to ballota, but these are bigger, thinner, not so rough, and smell of lemon. A decoction of the leaves (taken as a drink with wine, and also applied) is good for those touched by scorpions, or bitten by harvest spiders or dogs. A decoction of them is a warm pack for the same purposes. It is suitable for women’s hip baths for moving the menstrual flow, as a mouth rinse for toothache, andas an enema or suppository for dysentery. A decoction of the leaves (taken as a drink with saltpetre [potassium nitrate]) helps those who are ill from mushrooms or griping. Taken as a linctus [syrup] it helps difficult breathing, and applied with salt it dissolves scrofulous tumours [goitres] and cleans ulcers. Smeared on, it lessens the pains of gout. It is also called melitteon, meliphyllon, erythra, or temele; the Romans call it apiastrum, some, citrago, and the Gauls, merisimorion.
Following the Christianization of Rome, and long after the fall of the empire, Herbal medicine was practiced by monks, nuns and priests, who operated charitable hospitals and grew herbs for healing the sick. According to the “Healthy Hildegard” website, dedicated to the great herbalist, visionary, theologian and Doctor of The Church, Saint Hildegard von Bingen:
The origin of monastic medicinal gardens comes from Benedict of Nursia, founder of the monastery of Monte Cassino in 529 AD who said, “Before all things, and above all things, special care must be taken of the sick.” These early monastic medieval gardens were typically limited to the plants indigenous to the local environment. But as the missionary movement expanded its frontiers, monks returning from the far off lands introduced new medicinal herbs. Over time, the monastic garden would expand to include a wide variety of medicinal herbs for use and study.
The Emperor Charlemagne decreed that monasteries and abbeys plant such physic gardens and train the religious for the free care of the sick. Lemon balm was known to the EMperor, as we learn from an article on the Clover Leaf Farm website (www.cloverleaffarmblog.com/history-lemon-balm-ancients-used/2015/02/):
Charlemagne who later became known as Charles the Great, ordered it to be planted in all the monastery gardens for both it’s beauty and fragrance. It is speculated that Charles wanted these gardens to be filled with lemon balm, since at that time, lemon balm was used for promoting youth. Charles the Great, born in 742 AD, was king of the Franks from 768 and Emperor of the Romans from 800 AD to his death in 814 AD.
Interestingly though, neither Saint Hildegard, nor Abbot Walafrid Strabo mention Lemon Balm in their works. Abbot Strabbo was not only the author of the first Herbal book, entitled Hortulus, of the Christian era, but was tutor to the children of Emperor Charlemagne. It is very likely that Lemon Balm was so well known and in such common use that they found no need to include it in their books, Dioscorides’ de Materia Medica being the the main manual for herbal medicine used in Monastic Medicine, through the middle ages and even into more modern times.
The father of the great physician, chemist and alchemist who would be known as Paracelsus, was a physician at one such Catholic monastery. Dr. Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim was the physician at Einsiedeln, a church and town famous during its era as a place where religious pilgrims found both spiritual and physical healing. It was a place of miracles and natural beauty, whose hermetic founder was under the patronage of Saint HIldegard. The young Theophrastus was his father’s constant companion and protegee, his mother having died soon after his birth. The child was instructed in identifying and using all the medicinal herbs of the gardens and the woods long before studying chemistry and medicine in the universities and taking the name Paracelsus. His adult life was one of great controversy, but as he wandered far and wide seeking knowledge and acting as a physician, his reputation for being able to cure even the most difficult diseases was legendary, and very likely due to his foundation in herbal medicine. Clover Leaf Farms again tells us:
Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim , born in 1493, later became known as just Paracelsus. Paraclesus, was a Renaissance era physician, and alchemist who made prepared a tonic using the lemon balm herb, which he called primum ens melissae. This tonic drink was used to renew youth, was used well into the 18th century. Paracelsus, who was much ahead of his time, pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in early medicine. He was the first one who used the name “zink” for the chemical element zinc in about 1526.
As the tradition of Monastic Medicine evolved into German Folk Medicine through the writings of priests and religious who wished to make the knowledge of herbal medicine available to common people, often in opposition to modern or allopathic medicine, Lemon Balm would continue to feature prominently. Fr. Father Künzle lists Lemon balm as being helpful for remedying, “entangled substances, excrete diseased substances and entangled gases... widely used by people and given to cattle. And increasing the healing effect of other herbs.” “In case of whooping cough, bathe the child twice a day in warm bath enriched with boiled pine twigs; rub the breast 7 to 12 times a day with our Filix (fern tincture); Every hour give him a sip of cough tea to drink (thyme, lemon balm, peppermint, common couch roots, sage),” and for sleep:
..sleep is important, because during sleep the blood is detoxified from many harmful substances; if you don't sleep, then all kinds of disease substances develop and from them many disturbances arise. A glass of good wine in the evening helps many to fall asleep, while others achieve the same with a warm foot bath. Many sleep well if they place a crushed, slightly warmed onion or garlic under the back of their head. Others drink a cup of lemon balm tea. Many people fall asleep easily if they dip a pair of socks in hot vinegar, wring them out, put them on and then pull a couple of woolen socks over them and go to bed with them.
Brother Aloysius wrote:
Lemon Balm is a perennial herbaceous plant that grows one to two feet tall; it grows wild in France and is frequently cultivated in gardens. It contains fragrant oil and much camphor; the sap is hot and aromatic. The leaves, which resemble those of nettle, are dentate, a little wrinkled and hairy. The flowers are small, pink or whitegrowing in auxiliary racemes along the stems. It blooms from May to June. During this period the flower heads are gathered for medicinal use, for indigestion, headaches, migraine, convulsions, gastric weakness, a languishing stomach, cramps and nervous twitches, and chronic catarrh; it is especially good for mucus complaints; in addition to nausea, flatulence, hysteria and menstrual disorders.
In the British tradition, we find Lemon Balm held in equally high regard, though usually just called Balm, or Bawme. Gerard tells us:
Balm is called by Pliny, Melitis: in Latin, Melissa, Apiastrum, and Citraga: of some, Melissophyllon, and Meliphyllon: in Dutch, Consille de greyn: in French, Poucyrade, ou Melisse: in Italian, Cedronella, and Arantiata: in Spanish, Torongil: in English, Bawme, or Balm.
Balm is of temperature hot and dry in the second degree, as Avicenna saith: Galen saith it is like Horehound in faculty.
A. Balm drunk in wine is good against the bitings of venomous beasts, comforts the heart, and driveth away all melancholy and sadness.
B. Common Balm is good for women which have the strangling of the mother, either being eaten or smelled unto.
C. The juice thereof glueth together green wounds, being put into oil, unguent, or balm, for that purpose, and maketh it of greater efficacy.
D. The herb stamped, and infused in Aqua Vitæ, may be used unto the purposes aforesaid (I mean the liquor and not the herb) and is a most cordial liquor against all the diseases before spoken of.
E. The hives of bees being rubbed with the leaves of Balm, causeth the bees to keep together and causeth others to come unto them.
F. The later age, together with the Arabians and Mauritanians, affirm Balm to be singular good for the heart, and to be a remedy against the infirmities thereof; for Avicenna in his book written of the infirmities of the heart, teacheth that Balm makes the heart merry and joyful, and strengtheneth the vital spirits.
G. Serapio affirmeth it to be comfortable for a moist and cold stomach, to stir up concoction, to open the stopping of the brain and to drive away sorrow and care of the mind.
H. Dioscorides writeth, That the leaves drunk with wine, or applied outwardly, are good against the stingings of venomous beasts, and the bitings of mad dogs: also it helpeth the tooth-ache, the mouth being washed with the decoction, and is likewise good for those that canot take breath unless they hold their necks upright.
I. The leaves being mixed with salt (saith the same author) helpeth the King's evil, or any other hard swellings and kernels, and mitigateth the pain of the gout.
K. Smith's Balm or Carpenter's Balm is most singular to heal up green wounds that are cut with iron. It cureth the rupture in short time; it stayeth the whites. Dioscorides and Pliny have attributed virtues unto this kind of Balm, which they call Ironwort. The leaves (say they) being applied, close up wounds without any peril of inflammation. Pliny saith that it is of so great virtue, that though it be but tied to his sword that hath given the wound, it stancheth the blood.
This herb is so well known to be an inhabitant almost in every garden, that I shall not need to write any description thereof, although the virtues thereof, which are many, may not be omitted.
Government and virtues. It is an herb of Jupiter, and under Cancer, and strengthens nature much in all its actions. Let a syrup made of the juice of it and sugar (as you shall be taught at the latter end of this book) be kept in every gentlewoman's house, to relieve the weak stomachs and sick bodies of their poor sickly neighbours: as also the herb kept dry in the house, that so with other convenient simples, you may make it into an electuary with honey, according as the disease is, as you shall be taught at the latter end of my book. - The Arabian physicians have extolled the virtues thereof to the skies; although the Greeks thought it not worth mentioning. Seraphio saith, it causes the mind and heart to become merry, and reviveth the heart, faintings and swoonings, especially of such who are overtaken in sleep, and driveth away all troublesome cares and thoughts out of the mind, arising from melancholy or black choler: which Avichen also confirmeth. It is very good to help digestion, and open obstructions of the brain, and hath so much purging quality in it (saith Avichen) as to expel those melancholy vapours from the spirits and blood which are in the heart and arteries, although it cannot do so in other parts of the body. - Dioscorides saith, That the leaves steeped in wine, and the wine drank, and the leaves externally applied, is a remedy against the stings of a scorpion, and the bitings of mad dogs; and commendeth the decoction thereof for women to bathe or sit in to procure their courses; it is good to wash aching teeth therewith, and profitable for those that have the bloody flux. The leaves also, with a little nitre taken in drink, are good against the surfeit of mushrooms, helps the griping pains of the belly; and being made into an electuary, it is good for them that cannot fetch their breath: Used with salt, it takes away wens, kernels, or hard swelling in the flesh or throat: it cleanseth foul sores, and eases pains of the gout. It is good for the liver and spleen. A tansy, or caudle made with eggs, and juice thereof while it is young, putting to it some sugar and rosewater, is good for a woman in child-bed, when the after-birth is not properly voided; and for their faintings upon or in their sore travail. The herb bruised and boiled in a little wine and oil, and laid warm on a boil, will ripen it, and break it.
In A Modern Herbal, Mrs. Grieves wrote of Blam:
Medicinal Action and Uses---Carminative, diaphoretic and febrifuge. It induces a mild perspiration and makes a pleasant and cooling tea for feverish patients in cases of catarrh and influenza. To make the tea, pour 1 pint of boiling water upon 1 oz. of herb, infuse 15 minutes, allow to cool, then strain and drink freely. If sugar and a little lemonpeel or juice be added it makes a refreshing summer drink.
Balm is a useful herb, either alone or in combination with others. It is excellent in colds attended with fever, as it promotes perspiration .
Used with salt, it was formerly applied for the purpose of taking away wens, and had the reputation of cleansing sores and easing the pains of gout.
John Hussey, of Sydenham, who lived to the age of 116, breakfasted for fifty years on Balm tea sweetened with honey, and herb teas were the usual breakfasts of Llewelyn Prince of Glamorgan, who died in his 108th year. Carmelite water, of which Balm was the chief ingredient, was drunk daily by the Emperor Charles V.
Commercial oil of Balm is not a pure distillate, but is probably oil of Lemon distilled over Balm. The oil is used in perfumery.
Balm is frequently used as one of the ingredients of pot-pourri. Mrs. Bardswell, in The Herb Garden, mentions Balm as one of the bushy herbs that are invaluable for the permanence of their leaf-odours, which, 'though ready when sought, do not force themselves upon us, but have to be coaxed out by touching, bruising or pressing. Balm with its delicious lemon scent, is by common consent one of the most sweetly smelling of all the herbs in the garden. Balm-wine was made of it and a tea which is good for feverish colds. The fresh leaves make better tea than the dry.'
---Refreshing Drink in Fever---
'Put two sprigs of Balm, and a little woodsorrel, into a stone-jug, having first washed and dried them; peel thin a small lemon, and clear from the white; slice it and put a bit of peel in, then pour in 3 pints of boiling water, sweeten and cover it close.'
'Claret Cup. One bottle of claret, one pint bottle of German Seltzer-water, a small bunch of Balm, ditto of burrage, one orange cut in slices, half a cucumber sliced thick, a liqueurglass of Cognac, and one ounce of bruised sugar-candy.
'Process: Place these ingredients in a covered jug well immersed in rough ice, stir all together with a silver spoon, and when the cup has been iced for about an hour, strain or decanter it off free from the herbs, etc.' (Francatelli's Cook's Guide.)
Medicinal use of Lemon Balm: Lemon balm is a commonly grown household remedy with a long tradition as a tonic remedy that raises the spirits and lifts the heart. Modern research has shown that it can help significantly in the treatment of cold sores. The leaves and young flowering shoots are antibacterial, antispasmodic, antiviral, carminative, diaphoretic, digestive, emmenagogue, febrifuge, sedative, and tonic. It also acts to inhibit thyroid activity. An infusion of the leaves is used in the treatment of fevers and colds, indigestion associated with nervous tension, excitability and digestive upsets in children, hyperthyroidism, depression, mild insomnia, headaches etc. Externally, it is used to treat herpes, sores, gout, insect bites and as an insect repellent. The plant can be used fresh or dried, for drying it is harvested just before or just after flowering. The essential oil contains citral and citronella, which act to calm the central nervous system and are strongly antispasmodic. The plant also contains polyphenols, in particular these combat the herpes simplex virus which produces cold sores. The essential oil is used in aromatherapy. Its keyword is "Female aspects". It is used to relax and rejuvenate, especially in cases of depression and nervous tension.
Yet, all of this may not be as dramatic as the story told by the late herbalist, Michael Moore, in describing the difference in strength between tincture made of the dried herb and the fresh plant. While the tincture of dried Lemon Balm would be mildly sedative, he said that a fresh plant tincture - leaves and tops of Lemon Balm picked in the morning, immediately plunged into an already running blender filled with as high a proof (strongest percentage of alcohol) spirit that you can obtain - would yield a tincture so strong that it caused a big hairy biker to fall off of his motorcycle, into a bed of poison ivy and not even care! He said that the biker came back to his herb shop, took another dose of the fresh Lemon Balm tincture, sat down on the floor, zoned out and blocked foot traffic for a couple of hours!
As we wander through our “Garden of Pleasant Flowers” as Gerard called an herb garden, it is amazing the stories the plants could tell if they could speak. Perhaps the Lemon Balm would dismiss the legends and lore that grew up around it, but there is no doubt that its storied history is fascinating. Who know, those herbs may well seem to talk if we took enough fresh plant tincture of Lemon Balm!
The information on this site is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or condition. Nothing on this site has been evaluated or approved by the FDA. I am not a doctor. The US government does not recognize the practice of herbal medicine and their is no governing body regulating herbalists. Therefore, I'm just a guy who studies herbs. I am not offering any advice. I won't even claim that anything I write is accurate or true! I can tell you what herbs have "traditionally been used for." I can tell you my own experience and if I believe an herb helped me. I cannot, nor would I tell you to do the same. If you use any herb I, or anyone else, mentions you are treating yourself. You take full responsibility for your health. Humans are individuals and no two are identical. What works for me may not work for you. You may have an allergy, sensitivity or underlying condition that no one else shares and you don't even know about. Be careful with your health. By continuing to read my blog you agree to be responsible for yourself, do your own research, make your own choices and not to blame me for anything, ever.
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