What’s that plant pouring out of a container on your deck, attracting beneficial insects to its profusion of tiny blooms? It’s lemon balm, or if you’d like to sound fancy, Melissa officinalis. This fresh-tasting member of the mint family is easy to grow, and its delicious lemon-flavored leaves are perfect in teas or as a garnish in salads, including fruit salads. It’s also used to create fresh-tasting summer ice creams! Lemon balm is a great neighbor. It adds a wafting lemon scent to your summer garden, and its little white flowers attract pollinators that will help your other plants grow. Lemon balm is considered to be a calming herb and like mint, its tea makes a soothing infusion for an unsettled stomach.
Starting and Planting Your Lemon Balm
Lemon balm is very easy to grow, and it’s a good starter plant for a herb garden. Since it grows abundantly, the best way to start your own patch of lemon balm is to get some from a friend. It will increase in size every year, and you may find that you have many friends who would like to donate a little to your herb garden. If you don’t know anyone with lemon balm, you can start it from seed under lights in a room that is at least 70 degrees. Start it 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost, and plant it outside when the soil warms.
Like other members of the mint family, the trouble isn’t in starting lemon balm, it’s in getting rid of it! Since it’s such a useful plant, you may not want to get rid of your lemon balm, but you will want to control it. Plant it by itself in a container or place it in a place where it can spread, as the plant will increase in size over the summer months. Before you plant, add a little bit of organic, slow-release fertilizer, since herb plants have the touch job of staying vigorous and productive during a long harvest season.
Growing Lemon Balm
When you plant your lemon balm, be aware that it’s taller than many herbs. It can grow up to 3 feet high in ideal conditions. Like other mints, lemon balm is quite forgiving about its growing conditions. If you have the choice, give your lemon balm a location that is in dappled shade, because it prefers to be out of the hot midday sun. However, it will grow in full sun or shade; it may not be as vigorous, though. Since the plant attracts beneficial insects, it’s prudent to plant some near the plants that require bee pollination. Add a pot of lemon balm to a planter near your front door or an area beside a bench in your garden, and you’ll enjoy the benefits of the lemon balm scent as well.
Lemon balm is tough, and in most places it is frost-hardy and drought-tolerant, making it an excellent herb for many different sorts of environments.
Harvesting Your Lemon Balm
Like most herbs, lemon balm is one that you harvest gradually, taking what you need at that particular moment. Harvest single leaves or an entire stem: lemon balm thrives on cutting, and it will grow back thicker and stronger. Lemon balm is best used fresh, since when it is dried it loses some of that lovely lemon flavor. Use the leaves in savory dishes like fish and pork dishes that could use some lemon flavoring, or add them to sweet dishes to provide a sour complement to the sweetness. Gather and gently crush lemon balm for use in a fresh tea.
Types of Lemon Balm
The real joy of lemon balm is found in its lemony flavor and scent. If you get some from a friend or from a garden store, it will likely simply be called lemon balm. It does have cultivars that are somewhat different from each other, but all of them have the classic lemon scent and taste. The Citronella variety has a stronger lemon taste and smell; Lemonella is more aromatic, and Queldinburger is quite winter hardy. The lime variety is the same species as lemon balm, but it has a flavor that’s more on the lime end of the sour flavor spectrum. There’s also a pretty variegated variety called Variegata, and the Aurea variety is more golden in color.
If you’re partial to lemon flavoring and looking for a low maintenance plant for your herb garden, lemon balm is an excellent choice for beginners or for seasoned gardeners.