Herbal Impressions: Lemon Balm

I think I could write a whole book on just the history and lore, magic and medicine of Lemon Balm. It’s one of those plants for which the deeper you dig, the more there is to know and the more intimate your connection with it is.

HISTORY & LORE

Its Latin name, Melissa officinalis is derived from the Greek word 'Melissa' meaning honeybee and gives us some clues to its mysterious past and magical applications. In his book The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, William Ramsey writes, “In the Ephesian ceremonial the life of the bee was the model:  the Great Goddess was the queen bee, the mother of her people, and her image was in outline not unlike the bee, with a grotesque mixture of the human form: her priestesses were called Melissai,” illustrating the connection between the honeybee and the worship of the great Mother goddess. 

In ancient Greek religious doctrine, the Melissai priestesses served the Great Mother (Rhea or Cybele) or Goddesses of Earth and Nature such as Demeter, Persephone, and especially Artemis. The honeybee was considered to be a form the human soul took when descending from the Goddess Artemis herself.

The use of Lemon Balm dates back to ancient Turkey where it was planted near bee hives and used by the beekeepers of the Temple of Artemis to help keep the sacred honeybees happy. This seems particularly fitting this time of year as we bow to the Great Mother and Earth Goddesses for the abundant harvest and for gracing us with the blessings of the land as we turn slowly toward the end of the year (which comes, in some traditions, at Samhain at the end of October). 

Through trade routes, Lemon Balm eventually made its way into the monastic gardens throughout Europe. It was one of the herbs in the original formula for Carmelite water, which is both a drink and perfume developed by the Carmelite friars. It was used medicinally as a tonic to ward off nervous headaches and as a perfume to bring good cheer while masking strong odors (remember, bathing wasn’t a daily occurrence) in medieval and renaissance Europe.

One of its first recorded uses of Lemon Balm was as a wine infused liniment and was recommended by Dioscorides, a 1st century Greek physician practicing in Rome, to help “the stings of venomous beast and the bites of mad dogs”. And yes, it does work beautifully to soothe the sting from bees, wasps, and other insects.

Hildegard of Bingen, an 11th century herbalist and nun born in present day Germany said, “Lemon balm contains within it the virtues of a dozen other plants.” I can’t say I disagree with Hildegard.

Magically, Lemon Balm has a strong association with water, and thus with the emotions and their balance. In magical charms and recipes, it can be used to stuff dream pillows or as part of an incense to invoke the element of water, which deals with the emotional level of consciousness including dreams, intuition, relationships and connections, feelings, sensing, energetic cleansing, and healing.

PLANT MEDICINE

Lemon Balm is still widely used to calm the stomach (especially when dealing with too much heat), soothe the digestive tract, sedate hot irritated tissues, and balance mood. Cooling and mildly astringent, it eases mild depression and soothes anxiety and nervousness. Some say it is well suited to those who dislike cold, damp weather, finding that it lifts their weather-related mood. I like to think of Lemon Balm breathing sunshine into damp, heavy, clouded minds as well as a remedy to encourage self-belief and self-love.

One of the interesting contradictions about Lemon Balm is that even though it’s energetically cooling for the most part, it also has some warming actions due to its volatile oils. For this reason it acts as a carminative, gently warming the digestive tract to stimulate stagnant digestion and promote healthy digestive processes.

And, of course, Lemon Balm is a relaxing nervine meaning it relaxes and soothes the nervous system. According to herbalist Matthew Wood, "Melissa will generally calm most people." Simple but that pretty much sums it up. It's gentle, supportive, and restorative. I find it particularly helpful for those of us who tend to be ruled by our emotions in a way that often affects our digestive and immune systems.

As a mild antispasmodic, Lemon Balm can help relieve tension headaches and other mild pain due to tension. But since it has a special affinity for the digestive system, we see this antispasmodic action especially in how Lemon Balm relaxes abdominal cramping and other tension patterns in the digestive tract.

There are quite a few sources that list Lemon Balm as a remedy for heart palpitations, which makes sense as a nervine and the way its cooling energetics can help with heat excess, which can be the cause of heart palpitations. Heart palpitations often come with anxiety and I find Lemon Balm pairs beautifully with Motherwort and Hawthorn berry in situations like this.

One of my long time favorite herbalists, Kiva Rose, explains her favorite indication for Lemon Balm:

"I especially like it for those wound-up pitta people who are addicted to overworking themselves, or even just addicted to various foods, drugs, activities... It seems to somehow help them pull back from the compulsion that has them frantically attached to self-destructive activities. These people tend to have clear heat signs, complete with an often flushed face and their enthusiasm/interest may come off as a bit on the feverish side."

In recent years lemon balm has been researched extensively for its antiviral properties, especially in relation to herpes simplex 1 and 2. This is the virus that causes cold sores and genital sores. Lemon balm can both lessen the severity and speed the healing of an acute attack and, when taken regularly, can prevent future outbreaks. Folks seem to always ask about the essential oil for this purpose (which is *quite* expensive) but I find the fresh leaves, an infused oil, or even the hydrosol can be just as effective.

Lemon Balm leaves are best consumed when they're fresh, so I typically make a tincture in brandy with fresh leaves in the late spring and early summer. But dried leaves make a lovely and calming tea as well so don't shy away from the dried stuff. Just make sure it comes from a good source and has been properly stored.

BEAUTY MEDICINE

Lemon Balm has quickly become a favorite ingredient to use topically, especially as a hydrosol, but can also be used in its whole-plant form for things like dry masks that are activated with water. This nutrient-rich green leaf is high in delicate antioxidants that work to reduce free radical damage. It is specific to mending and soothing inflamed and problematic skin. (And yes it is going to be an ingredient in one of our new mask formulas.)

The hydrosol is delightfully calming to the body and soul without being overly sedative. Lemon Balm hydrosol has been traditionally used by aromatherapists to soothe irritations both inside and out. Topically, it can be used to calm rashes, burns, eczema, poison oak or ivy, and other general skin irritations. Energetically, it calms, cools, and softens overheated emotions and sharp moods. I’ve been using the hydrosol to soothe some irritation caused by a food allergy and find that it pairs beautifully with our Blue Chamomile Cleansing Oil and followed up by Luna Face Serum No. 2.


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