Melissa officinalis (LINN.)
Sweet Balm. Lemon Balm.
A native of South Europe, especially in mountainous situations,
but is naturalized in the south of England, and was introduced into our
gardens at a very early period.
The root-stock is short, the stem square and branching, grows 1 to 2 feet
high, and has at each joint pairs of broadly ovate or heart-shaped, crenate
or toothed leaves which emit a fragrant lemon odour when bruised. They
also have a distinct lemon taste. The flowers, white or yellowish, are
in loose, small bunches from the axils of the leaves and bloom from June
to October. The plant dies down in winter, but the root is perennial.
The genus Melissa is widely diffused, having representatives in Europe,
Middle Asia and North America. The name is from the Greek word signifying
'bee,' indicative of the attraction the flowers have for those insects,
on account of the honey they produce.
The word Balm is an abbreviation of Balsam, the chief of sweet-smelling
oils. It is so called from its honeyed sweetness It was highly esteemed
by Paracelsus, who believed it would completely revivify a man. It was formerly
esteemed of great use in all complaints supposed to proceed from a disordered
state of the nervous system. The London Dispensary (1696) says: 'An essence
of Balm, given in Canary wine, every morning will renew youth, strengthen
the brain, relieve languishing nature and prevent baldness.' John Evelyn
wrote: 'Balm is sovereign for the brain, strengthening the memory and powerfully
chasing away melancholy.' Balm steeped in wine we are told again, 'comforts
the heart and driveth away melancholy and sadness.' Formerly a spirit of
Balm, combined with lemon-peel, nutmeg and angelica root, enjoyed a great
reputation under the name of Carmelite water, being deemed highly useful
against nervous headache and neuralgic affections.
Many virtues were formerly ascribed to this plant. Gerard says: 'It is profitably
planted where bees are kept. The hives of bees being rubbed with the leaves
of bawme, causeth the bees to keep together, and causeth others to come
with them.' And again quoting Pliny, 'When they are strayed away, they do
find their way home by it.' Pliny says: 'It is of so great virtue that though
it be but tied to his sword that hath given the wound it stauncheth the
blood.' Gerard also tells us: 'The juice of Balm glueth together greene
wounds,' and gives the opinion of Pliny and Dioscorides that 'Balm, being
leaves steeped in wine, and the wine drunk, and the leaves applied externally,
were considered to be a certain cure for the bites of venomous beasts and
the stings of scorpions. It is now recognized as a scientific fact that
the balsamic oils of aromatic plants make excellent surgical dressings:
they give off ozone and thus exercise anti-putrescent effects. Being chemical
hydrocarbons, they contain so little oxygen that in wounds dressed with
the fixed balsamic herbal oils, the atomic germs of disease are starved
out, and the resinous parts of these balsamic oils, as they dry upon the
sore or wound, seal it up and effectually exclude all noxious air.
Balm grows freely in any soil and can be propagated by seeds, cuttings or
division of roots in spring or autumn. If in autumn, preferably not later
than October, so that the offsets may be established before the frosts come
on. The roots may be divided into small pieces, with three or four buds
to each, and planted 2 feet apart in ordinary garden soil. The only culture
required is to keep them clean from weeds and to cut off the decayed stalks
in autumn, and then to stir the ground between the roots.
Medical 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
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
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.