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Lemon Balm Plant: Lemon-Scented Herb

Lemon balm is a perennial leafy herb from the mint family with a strong but pleasant lemon smell. Like most herbs, the lemon balm plant is a hard-working multi-tasker that looks great with its lush vibrant green leaves as well as having numerous medicinal and culinary uses.  Most importantly, the uplifting and refreshing lemon scent is so highly fragrant, it can be enjoyed throughout the garden from late spring to fall. 

Medicinally lemon balm is known as the calming herb and has been used for centuries to aid sleep and relieve restlessness that comes with stress, anxiety, and depression.  It is used to promote calm in aromatherapy as well as boosting cognitive function including memory and concentration.

For a tangy kick to culinary dishes, add fresh lemon balm leaves to herbal teas, fruit salads, desserts, and cocktails. Its lemon aroma perfectly complements fish, chicken, and vegetables, but make sure to add leaves towards the end of cooking to retain the best flavor.  Lemon balm can also be dried and stored for longer-term use.

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Quick Care Guide

Lemon balm plant
The lemon balm plant is a popular addition to any herb garden. Source: Kathleen Farley
Common Name(s)Lemon balm, bee balm, sweet balm, blue balm, cure all, balm mint, garden balm
Scientific NameMelissa officinalis
Days to Harvest30-40 days
LightFull sun to partial  shade
WaterRegular water
SoilFertile, moisture-retentive soil
FertilizerMulch, liquid nitrogen feed in spring
PestsAphids
DiseasesPowdery mildew

All About Lemon Balm

Sweet balm flowers
It’s also referred to as sweet balm or bee balm. Source: deamentiaemundi

The botanical name for lemon balm is Melissa officinalisMelissa comes from the Greek word for ‘honey bee’, also, the Greek word meli or melitos meaning ‘honey’.  Officinalis indicates the herbs’ medicinal or culinary uses.  In ancient times the Greeks believed that lemon balm placed in an empty hive would attract bees to take up residence.  Similarly, lemon balm grown near a hive would encourage a swarm to stay.  Lemon balm grown in the garden is still a great way to attract beneficial insects.

There are many common names for lemon balm, including blue balm, cure-all, garden balm, and balm gentle just to name a few. Lemon balm is native to the Mediterranean, central Europe, and North Africa but has readily naturalized throughout North America and northern Europe.  

As a member of the mint family, Lamiaceae, lemon balm spreads outwards from the base each year and is a prolific self-seeder. It is a hardy perennial growing to 30 inches (75cm) tall and 18 inches (45cm) across. Leaves are similar in appearance to mint; soft, oval, with toothed margins and bright green in color, and they grow opposite on square, densely branching stems.  A strong lemon aroma is released when lemon balm leaves are gently bruised or heated by the sun. The white flowers are small and insignificant, borne in whorled clusters on leafy spikes.

In temperate zones, lemon balm may retain some foliage throughout winter.  Harsh winters may kill off any above-ground growth but plants will rejuvenate from the base in spring.  Young leaves have the best flavor and the more you harvest the more the plant produces.  If left to their own devices, plants will flower in early summer and set seed becoming woody with dull, coarse leaves.   This plant responds well to pruning and is a vigorous grower… the harder you prune, the more it grows back stronger.

Lemon balm is grown for its fresh or dried leaves, and many use lemon balm for culinary herbs as well as using them as medicinal plants. In medieval times the chopped leaves were thought to be a cure-all for medicinal use, mending crooked necks, soothing minor wounds, and treating venomous bites and stings to name a few. In modern times lemon balm is used to combat migraines, colds, fevers, catarrhal conditions, and to aid sleep. 

A great tip on how to make the most of that gorgeous lemon aroma in the garden is to plant lemon balm somewhere you will brush against its leaves releasing those lemony essential oils into the air.

There are many types of lemon balm, but we love “All Gold”, a tender variety of golden lemon balm with yellow and green leaves that grows to about 2 feet tall. Another great variety is Aurea, a variegated lemon balm with variegated gold and dark green leaves that is hardier than All Gold and reaches the same height.

Planting Lemon Balm

Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, is sown from seed in early spring and planted out after the last frost has passed. Cultivars such as ‘All Gold’ or ‘Aurea’ should be propagated from vegetative cuttings in spring/summer or bought as ready-grown plants.

Transplants should be spaced 12-15 inches (30-38cm) apart in a bright sunny location in fertile, free-draining, moist soil.  Keep young plants watered until established and water regularly during dry spells.  In hot climates, plant lemon balm where they will have some shade during the hottest time of day.

Grow lemon balm in containers or raised beds to control their sprawling growth habit but be careful not to let the containers dry out. Likewise, don’t allow containers to become waterlogged during wet winters.  Move plants to a sheltered location and raise containers onto feet to allow them to drain freely.

Care

Close up of lemon balm
A close-up view of lemon balm leaves. Source: Wendell Smith

Lemon balm is easy to grow and a great addition to the herb garden.  Your friends and family will be blown away by the scent. Follow the tips below to grow lemon balm at home.

Sun and Temperature

Lemon balm prefers a sunny position but will tolerate some light shade. This hardy perennial shrub can tolerate temperatures down to -20ºF, (-30ºC) and will grow well in USDA zones 4 to 9.  Although lemon balm loves to grow in full sun it may suffer in extreme heat, so consider locating plants where they will be shaded from scorching direct sunlight.  A good mulch in spring will help retain moisture and winter mulch will protect roots from harsh frosts.

Water and Humidity

Consistent regular watering is key to healthy plants.  Plants will tolerate a brief period of drought but try not to let the soil dry out between watering to prevent permanent wilt. Watering early in the morning will allow plants to absorb as much water as possible before the full heat of the day.  Use timed soaker hoses or watering cans directed at the base of the plant.  To avoid waterlogging in winter, only water when needed and move container-grown plants to a sheltered location.

Soil

Lemon balm prefers a good quality compost or fertile loam-based moist, free-draining soil.  A mulch of compost or well-rotted manure in spring and autumn will help retain moisture and protect the root ball from frost. The preferred pH is 6.5 to 7.

Fertilizing

Fertile soil and good mulch are enough to grow lemon balm.  A liquid nitrogen-rich feed is recommended if plants require a boost at the start of the season. However, over-fertilizing lemon balm can negatively affect the flavor of the leaves.

Pruning

Lemon balm grows vigorously throughout spring and summer and benefits from a hard prune every month to control the size, encourage fresh new growth, and to prevent self-seeding.  Prune stems back by half their length and within a few weeks, the plant will be twice as bushy.  Prune variegated cultivars such as ‘Aurea’ in early summer to maintain good color variegation and prune all plants at the end of the season to keep them looking neat over winter.

Propagation

Sow seeds on the surface of pre-watered compost in a seed tray from March to May.  Cover lightly with vermiculite or sieved compost and place somewhere warm. Germination takes between 1 and 3 weeks.

When seedlings are large enough to handle, gently tease them out and plant them individually into small pots or individual cells in a module tray.

Softwood cuttings can be taken before the plant flowers.  Take a non-flowering cutting approximately 5-6 inches long.  Strip the lower leaves from the stem and place cuttings around the edge of a pot filled with compost.  Keep the cuttings moist at all times, but never overly wet as this will rot the stems.  Roots should have developed after 6-8 weeks.  Pot on rooted cuttings into their own pots and plant outside once established.

Plants can become large and congested if not divided every few years in the fall.  To divide, dig around the entire plant to loosen the root ball. Carefully remove the plant from the ground and using two forks inserted into the middle of the plant back-to-back, slowly wedge the forks apart until the root ball is split in two.  This process can be repeated on smaller divisions to create even more plants.  Divisions can be replanted into new locations straight away.

Growing lemon balm almost always results in self-seeded free plants popping up all over the garden.  These can be easily transplanted to where you want them.

Harvesting and Storing

Lemon balm leaves
The serrated edges of Melissa officinalis leaves are easily identifiable. Source: Wendell Smith

Lemon balm is all about the harvest. Follow the tips below to ensure bumper harvests and successful storage.

Harvesting

Harvest lemon balm leaves throughout the growing season when the plant has fresh young leaves. The lemon balm essential oil in the leaves is at its strongest at mid-afternoon.  Pick leaves as needed or harvest all the leaves at once to dry for longer-term use by simply cutting back all the stems by half. You will be rewarded with a flush of new greens in just a few weeks. 

Storing

Fresh stems of lemon balm can be stored in a glass of water in the fridge for up to a week, or wrapped in damp kitchen paper. Use lemon balm as fresh leaves for the best flavor.   

To dry stems, hang or lay flat somewhere dark, cool, and well ventilated until leaves feel crispy to touch.  Once dried, leaves will store up to a year in an airtight container. Although dried leaves do not retain as much flavor as fresh, they still retain a lot of goodness.  Add a slice of lemon, dried chamomile, mint, or other herbs to dried lemon balm tea leaves to compliment the flavor and therapeutic value of a herbal tea.

Troubleshooting

Lemon balm flowers
Lemon balm flowers are small and delicate but pretty. Source: jmunt

Lemon balm is very easy to grow and has very few growing problems to contend with.

Growing Problems

The main problem with growing lemon balm is its propensity to self-seed.  If you don’t keep on top of those flowers going to seed, you’ll find yourself with lots of baby lemon balm plants scattered throughout the garden.  Not to worry as they are very easy to identify and remove and make great gifts for friends and family.

Pests

Lemon balm can be attacked by aphids, tiny pests that feed on the sap of new growth. Companion planting with marigolds or calendula will help deter aphids and encourage beneficial insects into the garden to feed on them.  Alternatively, spray with an organic insecticidal soap or neem oil.  Squishing aphids with fingers or a quick blast of water can also help to reduce numbers. 

Diseases

Lemon balm is susceptible to powdery mildew if plants become congested or overshadowed. It grows as thick dust on leaves, inhibiting photosynthesis and hindering growth.  Maintain good garden hygiene, removing infected foliage to prevent the disease from spreading and reinfection in subsequent years.  Provide adequate sunlight and good air circulation. Treat affected plants with an organic fungicide such as sulfur or potassium bicarbonate, prior to or on first sight of disease. Severe infections can be knocked down with copper fungicide.

Frequently Asked Questions

Large lemon balm
Lemon balm can reach up to 2 feet in height. Source: cheeseslave

Q: What is lemon balm plant used for?

A:  Lemon balm makes a calming herbal tea that can help relieve stress and aid sleep.  It can also be used to add a hint of lemon flavor to fish, chicken, or vegetable dishes.  

Q: Is lemon balm plant edible?

A:  The leaves and stems of the lemon balm plant are edible.

Q: Does lemon balm come back every year?

A: Lemon balm is a hardy perennial herb that grows back year after year, bigger and better.