Edible Plants: Lemon Balm; History, Culinary Uses and Nutrition
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a hardy, perennial herb related to mint. Indeed, its leaves closely resemble mint, although it has a fragrant lemony scent and taste. Lemon balm has been cultivated since ancient times as food and for its medicinal properties.
Lemon balm is thought to have originated from Southern Europe, in particular the eastern Mediterranean region, and the Middle East. Ancient civilization such as the Greeks and Romans rubbed their bee hives with lemon balm to stop bees from swarming and to attract new colonies. Strangely enough lemon balm attracts bees, hence its alterative name ‘bee balm,’ although it repels most other insects, making it a reasonably good insect repellent. Roman soldiers were known to carry lemon balm with them on their conquests to treat insect bites and also scorpion and snack bites.
It’s thought that lemon balm was brought to England by the Romans whom had developed lemon balm essential oil for medicinal purposes. At some point it became popular to plant the herb by the entrance of your house in order to drive away evil spirits. By the Middle Ages it was thought that rubbing lemon balm on the head could prevent baldness and cure such ailments as toothache and back ache. The Swiss physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) promoted a lemon balm beverage as “an elixir of life”, a drink that gave one eternal youth or eternal life.
The Culinary Uses of Lemon Balm: Lemon balm is a delicate herb and doesn’t stand up well to high heat. It can be used in cooking but should be added at the end of the cooking process, or it will lose its subtle flavor. This herb is widely used in Asian cooking and Indian cuisine, where it is added to curries and soups. In Holland, lemon balm is served with pickled eel and herring to counteract the intense flavor of fish. Lemon balm is often pared with robust flavors such as tarragon vinegar, poultry and veal. Lemon balm is also a flavoring for the liqueurs Benedictine and Chartreuse, which were first created by Benedictine monks in Germany.
The Nutritional Value of Lemon Balm: Lemon balm contains hundreds of organic compounds that are generally thought beneficial to our health. Among these are phenolic compounds and in particular the bioflavonoids luteolin and apigenin. Both luteolin and apigenin have potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer activity. They are also free radical scavengers, meaning they help neutralize harmful free radicals in the body. Free radicals cause the oxidization of cells and ultimately chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Apigenin may have the added benefit of blocking uric acid which could help relieve the suffering of people with gout.
Another compound found in lemon balm which has medicinal benefits is rosmarinic acid. This is a type of polyphenol which has antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. ‘En vivo’ Research has demonstrated that rosmarinic acid might be useful for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Rosmarinic acid is also used in the food industry as a preservative, most notably in Japan where it is used to preserve seafood.
Also found in lemon balm is caffeic acid. Caffeic acid is an organic compound that has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Caffeic acid inhibits the growth of carcinogens and helps prevent degenerative diseases. Caffeic acid is also found in coffee beans but has nothing to do with caffeine. Lemon balm essential oil contains citral, as do several other scented plants including lemon grass and lavender. Citral is used in the manufacture of cosmetics, ointments, insecticides and as a food flavoring. Some people have an allergic reaction to citral and develop dermatitis.
The Medicinal Value of Lemon Balm: Lemon balm is used widely in aromatherapy to help control depression. It also aides sleep and relieves stress, headaches, migraines, nervousness and dizziness. Lemon balm tea after a meal aids digestion and prevents flatulence and colic. Rubbed on the skin it can heal canker sores, act as an insect repellant and relieve itching caused by insect bites. As an inhalant it is used to treat asthma and other respiratory problems. It is also used to assist natural birth control methods as it encourages ovulation.