Some virtues, folklore, and use of lemon balm and mint

If you grow lemon balm in the garden, also known simply as balm or sweet balm, you’re likely aware of this Mint family member’s many virtues.

Introduced from Europe, this perennial herb has erect square stems and stands about two feet tall. The whole plant is covered with a soft down, and if the foliage is touched, even as soon as it’s just emerging from the earth in spring, it offers an abundance of that sweet lemon fragrance it’s famous for.

The flowers, insignificant looking really to us humans, are a magnet for bees, so in that respect, not insignificant at all! The Latin name, ‘Melissa officinalis’ comes from the Greek word ‘Melissa‘, which translated literally means ‘bee‘.

According to folklore, apiarists of old would rub the leaves of lemon balm inside older hives, inducing new swarms to remain and take them over.

Lemon balm thrives in poor soil, (I can account for that), and thrives in both sun or shade.

In fact, thrive is an understatement. Like any mint, it is an aggressive and prolific plant. It will take over the whole garden and your lawn if you let it. I suggest planting any in a big pot, then sinking it in to the ground if you don’t want its thick runner roots to escape.

I can’t lecture anyone about that because it did escape in my garden. Now I have to keep it (somewhat) contained by mowing parts of it down, (which likely helps it spread), but that lemon scent wafting through the air as I cut the lawn smells divine!

This herb makes a lovely tea. Hot or cold, it can be used to flavour lemonade. Mixed with Chamomile, lemon thyme, and lemon balm, this soothing tea tastes wonderful. It can be very relaxing if one is feeling stressed. Adding a little honey will sweeten the mix, too.

It must be said however, if one is on any thyroid medication, lemon balm may interfere with thyroid hormone-replacement therapy. It’s best avoided in this case, and I hasten to add, always check with a doctor, pharmacist, or certified herbalist first.

According to Mrs. Grieve, lemon balm as a drink induces a mild persperation, makes a pleasant, cooling tea for feverish patients, and, if used with salt, can be used to ease gout.

As most lemon flavours go, it’s especially nice with fish and pork. It also adds a light flavour to stews and soups. I’ve been drying this and many herbs, for a long time. Mixing them together with sea salt is an easy way to create a rub for meat, poultry, or in a salad. Steeping mints and lemon balm in vinegar, then straining is an easy way to create an herbal flavour to be used on salads, or in other culinary recipes. If you don’t like the flavour, it makes a nice hair rinse, leaving your locks shiny and healthy looking! Just don’t get any in your eyes. It will sting!

I harvest my lemon balm in the morning after the dew has evaporated, but before the high sun of the day. Use it fresh if you can, because that’s when most herbs are most potent in flavour, aroma, and qualities. Otherwise, it’s easily dried and if you harvest it before it flowers, but do leave some behind to encourage bees in the garden. Hung upside in small bunches to dry, it only takes a few days to do this, and when it’s crispy, break it all up and keep it in a jar for future use.

With regards to folklore, and in addition to Lavender, Mandrake, Deadly Nightshade, Cardamom, Plantain, Juniper, Saffron, and a host of other plants, the mint family members, including lemon balm, are considered Witches plants.

The sacred knowledge of these plants in particular were given by the Greek goddess Hecate to her daughters, Circe and Medea, and were considered consecrated herbs by this mythical trio.

According to Culpeper, ‘It is an herb of Jupiter, and under Cancer, and strengthens nature much in all its actions. Let a syrup made of the juice of it and sugar be kept in every gentlewoman’s house, to relieve the weak stomachs and sick bodies of their poor sickly neighbours: as also the herb kept dry in the house, that so with other convenient simples, you may make it into an electuary with honey.’

Flower language in folklore tells us that Lemon balm and the mint family equates with wisdom, virtue, and abundance. Customary in medieval times, peasants would ‘strew the churches with Mint or other herbs and flowers’ at funerals as a devotion to the Virgin Mary, where a poem from this custom illustrates it well

“Thou knave, but for thee ere this time of day
My lady’s fair pew had be streed full gay
With Primroses, Cowslips, and Violets sweet,
With Mints, and Marygold and Marjoram meet,
Which now lyeth uncleanly, and all among of thee.”

In the Abruzzi region of Italy, women who chanced upon sweet balm or mint would pick and bruise a leaf between their fingers as insurance for the day of their death, and that ‘Jesus Christ would assist them into Heaven.’

Gerarde stated about all mints, “It poured into the eares, taken inwardly against sea scorpions, serpents, and applied with salt, to the bitings of mad dogs.”

All very interesting! But, here’s hoping nobody’s path crosses with mad dogs, serpents or sea scopions.

Another suggestion, if like me, you grow way more herbs than you can possible use, and don’t like to see them go to waste, make some kindling bundles. These take no time to put together and are nothing more than dried herbs rolled into bundles and tied with raffia, used as kindling or fire starters. – Perfect for that cottage camp fire in summer, all you have to do is harvest some herbs, including mint, lavender, thyme, marjoram, etc., tie them together and use when you need them. They offer a lovely scent with which to light a fire, or, as an offering to the gods if you’re feeling particulary Witchy under a full moon.

With all of the information above, I may have either encouraged people to grow lemon balm and other mints, or totally scared them off! However, they are such useful herbs and I recommend anyone growing them in the garden.

As I sit here looking wistfully out the window, observing the three feet of snow still covering my yard, I’m actually looking forward to cutting the grass this year, and inhaling that lovely lemon scent.

 


References

  • The Herb Garden Guide – ERIC ED242477 – Lathrop E. Smith Environmental Education Center
  • The American Herbalist Guild – Pub Med and additional resources
  • The healthy life beverage book – Knaggs, H. Valentine, University of Leeds. Library, 1911
    Publisher, London : C.W. Daniel
  • A Modern Herbal, by Mrs. M. Grieve, 1931
  • Nicholas Culpepper. The Complete Herbal at Project Gutenberg
  • Cyclopedia of practical floriculture, by Turner, Cordelia Harris, 1884
  • Herb magic, by United States Department of Agriculture. Radio Service, 1944
  • Plant lore, legends, and lyrics – by Folkard, Richard, 1884
  • The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes /gathered by John Gerarde of London, master in chirurgerie. by Dodoens, Rembert,; Gerard, John,; John Norton.; Priest, Robert, 1597

Gardening for pollinators and other wildlife

When we strike a balance with nature, creatures of all shapes and sizes with whom we share our neck of the woods all benefit, so it’s a win-win!

When we seek to create a garden, it can become a hub of activity, much of it we may not even be aware of, but activity that caters to wildlife. If we are mindful of life beyond ourselves and provide eco friendly spaces for other living creatures, we offer refuge to many a beneficial visitor.

Insects, birds, and smaller mammals begin to thrive, visit and maybe even take up residence! That’s usually because creatures smaller than themselves are also in the vicinity, offering a food source, so the chain of life begins.

Spring is an ideal time to embrace local biodiversity. We gardeners can see the effects of our handiwork in our own plots.

Perhaps not overnight, but over the course of a season when our yards yield evidence of the wildlife we’ve attracted. This is done when we create a natural space in which they can prosper.

Take the humble bumblebee. I’m going to risk the raising of eyebrows from fellow dog lovers and state that bees are up there with our pooches as ‘man’s best friend’! But seriously, some hard working pollinators might seem scary to a few folk, but they very rarely sting and if they do, it’s as a last line of defence. Beyond that caveat, a bee’s hard work and importance to us as a species cannot be overstated.

Can you imagine a garden without flowers? Or an orchard without fruit? In some parts of the world, this dystopian outlook is closer to reality than we might fear…

Approximately 80 percent of food crops grown around the world require pollination and that’s mainly done by the hardworking bee. Unfortunately bees are having a particularly hard time at the moment. It has become entirely clear to many that habitat loss and the use of pesticides and herbicides, mainly by big Ag are the main contributor to our loss of bees. (I believe Monarch butterflies may also fall victim to these practices for similar reasons, but I digress..).

Millions of bees have died and this disturbing occurrence is not just taking place in North America, but all over the world. Because of this, it’s crucial that we gardeners plant our plots to ensure the survival of the bee. We can offer them a safe haven from chemicals, and considering just how important they are with respect to our food supply, the consequences could be devastating to say the least, so our help no matter how small is vital.

We can help by offering bees, and other pollinators, plants that are attractive to them when  foraging for food. Consider growing bee balm (Monarda) in the garden. It’s an excellent choice and certainly lives up to its name! The bonus is, bee balm is extremely appealing to hummingbirds and butterflies, too!

Just off the top of my head, I’d like to name several varieties in my garden that I’ve found appeal to bees and other creatures:

Aconitum (Monkshood), Chives , Dandelions,  Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), Digitalis (Foxglove), Bearded Iris, Lupinus X polyphylla (Lupine) Physostegia virginiana (Obedient Plant), Pulmonaria (Lungwort), Sunflowers, Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), Hollyhocks, and Gaillardia, just for starters! Of course the best thing any gardener can do is to have a progression of blooms throughout the growing season, which is a tall order for even the seasoned gardener, but definitely a great goal to have.

The same gardening practices that attract and help wildlife also improve our air, water and soil quality. The benefit goes beyond our gardens, and it only takes a few plants and some forethought to create these habitats.

We can even attract creatures to our garden by adding a couple of containers with some flowering annuals. Gardeners with limited space may even want to plant vertically. Using wall space, arbors or fences to grow perennial vines like honeysuckle, Virginia creeper or annuals like sweet pea, morning glory, or scarlet runner beans and even hanging baskets will woo pollinators.

If you’re ambitious, consider selecting a wide variety of plants that provide blooms from early spring into late fall. Hummingbirds happen to prefer red tubular flowers and will visit all season long for them. Butterflies are usually drawn to more open-faced yellow and purple flowers, as well as herbs like lavender, dill, thyme, oregano and parsley.

Many herbs can be grown in containers in the smallest of garden like a balcony or windowsill. And I’ve yet to mention native plants, which offers the ultimate gift to wildlife as they are even more attractive a food source for local pollinators than anything else one could grow.

By making a conscious effort to not use harmful chemicals in the garden we encourage beneficial insects like ladybugs to visit, who happen to eat aphids! Toads and frogs are great allies in the garden as well since they eat slugs and grasshoppers. For them, I have a couple broken clay pots turned upside down, which offers these creatures some shelter during rainstorms. I also strategically place large seashells in the garden which collect water to offer them a drink on a hot day.

With very little maintenance, the garden will be a welcome haven for all kinds of insects and birds, and wildlife, while adding beauty and creating sustainability at the same time. Whether it’s mulching beds, reducing the size of lawn, which happens to be the most unnatural landscape of all considering the chemicals and water use that go into maintaining one, or by harvesting rainwater in a barrel for use on annual containers, we all benefit by preserving the environment and creating an ecological balance in our own backyard. Remember, preserving the environment is one of the most fundamental elements of gardening.

Have fun in the garden, and at the same time lend a helping hand, and those green thumbs to the pollinators in your neck of the woods. 🙂