Family: Lamiaceae (Labiatae), Melissa officinalis L.

Source: Simon, J.E., A.F. Chadwick and L.E. Craker. 1984. Herbs: An Indexed Bibliography. 1971-1980. The Scientific Literature on Selected Herbs, and Aromatic and Medicinal Plants of the Temperate Zone. Archon Books, 770 pp., Hamden, CT.

Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis L., a perennial herb native to southern climates of Europe and North America, is presently found in both wild and cultivated states. Several other species of Melissa have been reported from the Mediterranean and central Asian areas, but only Melissa officinalis L. is cultivated. The plant grows erect and reaches a height of 0.5 to 1 meter.

The reported life zone of balm is 7 to 23 degrees centigrade with 0.5 to 1.3 meters annual precipitation and a soil pH of 4.5 to 7.8 (4.1-31). The plant, which develops best in full sun and deep soil, is sensitive to cold temperature and excessive or inadequate water levels in the soil.

Horticulturally, lemon balm is grown as an annual or perennial, harvested only once at flowering during the first year and twice in subsequent years. Significant loss of aroma sometimes occurs during drying. Both the white and pink flowers, which blossom from middle to late summer, and the vegetative portion of the plant are known to attract honeybees (1.8-38). The name of the genus, Melissa, comes from the Greek word meaning "bee," attesting to the early recognition of this characteristic (14.1-3). Irrigation does not appear to alter the essential oil in balm (4.5-167).

The volatile oil, obtained by steam distillation of plant material immediately after harvest, is used only limitedly in perfumery because of perfumers are able to simulate the odor of lemon balm with less expensive extracts of other aromatic plants. The oil content of fresh leaves averages 0.1 percent or less with a large range between 0.01 and 0.13% (14.1-8). Multiple harvests and optimum horticultural practices have been reported to increase the percent of extractable essential oil (4.3-15). The highest levels of essential oil have been extracted in late summer from the lower parts of the plants (4.3-15). The essential oil contains geraniol, citronellol, cintronellal, linalool, eugenol acetate, and nerol. The essential oil is often adulterated with mixtures of lemongrass, citronella, or lemon oil (14.1-8).

The green, lemony-scented, aromatic leaves are used both fresh and dried as a seasoning in salad dressings, sauces, soups, meats, vegetables, desserts, and confections. Dried leaves are often used in potpourris. As a flavoring agent, balm is used in some alcoholic beverages and liqueurs and in herbal teas. Several varieties, including a variegated type, are available for ornamental uses, especially as border plants in gardens.

As a medicinal plant, lemon balm has traditionally been employed against catarrh, fever, flatulence, headaches, influenza, and toothaches. It has also been used as a carminative, diaphoretic, and sedative. Recent evidence suggests that lemon balm has a depressant or sedative action on the central nervous systems of laboratory mice, (7.5-90). Oil of balm has also been shown to have antiviral, antibacterial, and antispasmodic activity. Lemon balm has been reported to be an insect repellent (11.1-96).

Bee balm (Monarda spp.), often confused with lemon balm, is a separate member of the Labiatae family.

Lemon balm is generally considered safe for human consumption as a spice/natural flavoring and a plant/oil extract (21 CFR section 182.10, 182.20 [1982]).

[Note: References listed above in parentheses can be found in full in the original reference].

Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Index

Last modified 6-Dec-1997