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

How to best grow Basil, and some Folklore, too

Basil – Arguably one of the most popular kitchen herbs today, it adds just the right flavour to so many recipes. But, did you know there is folklore surrounding this tasty plant?!

Inspired by #FolkloreThursday on Twitter for some time now, I began researching my favourite plants and flowers to learn their history, and what connections if any, they may have to ancient lore, superstitions, or stories.

In parts of Italy to this day, Basil is considered an herb that inspires love. Its scent is thought to bring about sympathy, and Medieval Italian maidens gave their chosen love a sprig of Basil to ensure their love would be returned in full.

With antibacterial properties, basil is considered to be good insect repellent. Along those lines, it’s good for hornets and wasp stings too, according to Culpeper, “Being applied to the place bitten by the venomous beast, or stung by a wasp or hornet, it speedily draws the poison to it“.

To carry a sprig of Basil in your purse or wallet is supposed to be a way to draw money and abundance to you and your bank account.  <-  I’ve tried with limited success. 😉

In dispute of what I’ve shared above, the Dierbach’s Flora Mythologica der Griechen und Römer, claims Basil represents poverty. In addition, the approved modern English ‘Dictionary of Flowers,’ states that offering Basil is a way to show hate to one’s enemy.

Who are we supposed to believe? Better not chance it, I’ve just removed the sprig of Basil from my wallet. Perhaps that’s why there was limited success.

According to ‘The Expert Gardener’ (1640), a work “faithfully collected from Dutch and French authors”, and a whole chapter devoted to the times and seasons which one should “sow and replant all manner of seeds”, this book offers special reference to the phases of the Moon. Specific to Basil and when to sow, reads: “must be sowne in March, when the Moone is old.”

As it’s still February, we’re not quite there. Another month to go before sowing those seeds. But when you do, here is some practical information on how best to grow it.

Basil will reach a height of 24″and spreads from 12-15″
Germination takes 7-10 days, and they should be sown at a shallow depth of 1/8″

Planting Season, other than the folklore above, I suggest outdoors in containers, 1-2 weeks after the last Spring frost has gone. Basil requires full sun for best success, and well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter.

In any case, with more than 150 varieties of Basil available, my personal favorites include Lemon Basil (Ocimum citrodorium), Purple Basil, less common than its traditional green counterpart, but with an uplifting, punchy flavour and a rich, show stopping colour, and last but not least, the ever popular Italian Large Leaf Basil, that some call Genovese.

All three are perfect for pesto, pasta sauces, and herbal vinegar.

Basil is best used fresh, picked from containers close to your kitchen! Mine are by our dining room door where we have sun all day long.

Thankfully, Basil has very few pests, and you can also use it as a companion plant to repel mites and tomato worms. As the saying goes, ‘Tomatoes loves Basil’.

Basil loves its tips pinched, which will encourage fuller plants, delay flowers, and keep it from going to seed.

I suggest letting one plant go to seed so that you can save them to grow again next year, or share with friends.

Personally, I grow Basil indoors on our sunny windowsill all year long. The seeds can be planted anytime!

Pest Recipe – Wall Flower Studio – Feel free to print and share.

Enjoy!

Forage for Borage – A historic and useful herb for any garden

Borage flowers – A true blue addition to any garden!

This herb with its star-shaped flowers is not only beautiful, but extremely useful!

I’ve always felt this plant was underrated in our gardens, unlike in the past where its qualities were highly valued.

Admiring them as one would any species with a historical pedigree, this heirloom has been cultivated since (at least) the 1400s, and the folklore they encompass states just how much borage was valued.

It was said to bring courage to one’s heart. “Borage for courage” as the saying goes. Ancient Celtic people believed borage offered courage in the face of enemies on the battle field. How extraordinary!

In our modern times the quote should be renamed “Forage for Borage” 😉  As a courageous companion plant, it’s known to repel hornworms on tomatoes, offering this plant a serious if not fashionable comeback.

Borage may be considered an annual herb where I live, but it self seeds easily and appreciates any extra warmth offered by the raised beds in our yard. They’ve settled in quite happily!

The dainty flowers are edible, offering a slight cucumber-like flavour. Use them in soups, salads, sandwiches, or as a substitute for spinach (stuffed into traditional pasta), or as a pretty garnish on the plate. A friend of mine uses them to flavour her pickles, while another makes teas and assorted iced drinks with them. In addition there’s a recipe for a simple syrup at the end of this post.

Thankfully Borage is not a fussy plant and grows well in most soils. I’m happy to report that deer avoid Borage like the plague, likely due to its fuzzy leaves. A real plus in many a gardener’s mind!

If you like to save and share, Borage seeds are easily harvested, or leave them to self sow.

Every year you can look forward to them gracing the garden once again.

Those showy little blue star-shaped flowers attract bees, butterflies, and all sorts of good pollinators. They’re a wonderful addition to anyone’s garden!

Note:

  1. When planting Borage seeds, the best time to do this is in spring, after any remaining chance of frost. Soak the seeds first in wet paper towel overnight, and then sow them directly into the garden, but not too deep, as half an inch will suffice.
  2. Borage will grow to a height of 2- 3 feet.
  3. The oil from Borage seeds is highly valued and plants are now commercially cultivated for skin care products and other items. It’s one of my favourite go-to ingredients for use in my own products.
  4. If you see some of your flowers are pink, then there is likely a deficiency in your soil. Below is a photo from a couple of years ago. I’ve since discovered this is a common site if Borage is growing in dry, gravelly soil. To fix this, simply add some triple-mix or compost. The pink is actually quite pretty, and Borage may even offer white flowers from time to time.

Recipe: Borage Simple Syrup

This simple syrup offers up a light cucumber flavour.

1 cup water
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup borage flowers

– Bring the sugar and water to simmer, until all the sugar has dissolved.
– Add the flowers, simmer for 2 -3 minutes and remove from heat
– Let this steep for at least 2 hours before straining.
– Keep this in the refrigerator and use within one month.
– Makes about 1 & 1/4 cups

It’s the perfect addition to a summer cocktail.. Enjoy!

Happy Gardening! 🙂