Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a hardy perennial herb in the mint family (Lamiaceae) with a strong lemony scent and taste.
Lemon balm is easy to grow – like mint it can be invasive and is best confined in a container. Lemon balm will also self-seed. The resulting seedlings are easily weeded out, but if you don’t want lemon balm spreading throughout your garden then remove flowers before they set seed.
The plants will grow to around 75 cm tall. The species plant is plain green, but there are several varieties available. ‘All Gold’ is a beautiful golden variety that looks gorgeous when the sun is shining. ‘Compactum’ is a dwarf variety, and ‘Lime’ has a lime flavour instead of the standard lemon flavour. A variegated variety is also available, and is the only one that will appreciate a bit of shade instead of full sun. In full sun the variegated leaves can scorch, but I have a green lemon balm and a variegated lemon balm both growing happily in full sun.
Bees love lemon balm flowers, so this is a good plant for attracting beneficial insects into the garden. It’s also good for you – lemon balm tea can help soothe headaches and settle stomachs. Reputedly good for the memory, it also has anti-viral properties.
Green lemon balm can be grown from seed. The other varieties won’t come true from seed and need to be bought as plants or grown from cuttings. Cuttings should be taken in summer. Like mint, the plant can also be divided in spring or autumn.
To make lemon balm tea, simply pick a sprig of leaves (about 5 per cup) and steep them in hot water for 5-10 minutes. Don’t use boiling water as the essential oils may evaporate.
Lemon balm also has many culinary uses and can be used wherever a lemony flavour is wanted – e.g. risotto, fish dishes and baked goods. Lemon balm syrup is simple to make and can be used for summery drinks or fruit salads.