Lemon balm uses and how to grow it
When talking about classic herbs, sweetly fragrant lemon balm might not be one of the first to spring to mind. But this large, leafy herb should have a place in your kitchen and in your tea cabinet.
Lemon balm is a perennial herb in most warmer zones (4-9). It’s a member of the mint family, and like its cousins, can be a little overzealous if you let it go to seed. It is, however, pretty easy to keep in check since it doesn’t spread via suckers with the tenacity of mint or oregano. Lemon balm, like so many delicious herbs, come from the Mediterranean where it’s been under cultivation for centuries.
Wondering what to use lemon balm for?
This ungrammatical question comes up a lot whenever lemon balm is mentioned. While the herb is fairly well-known, the actual uses for lemon balm are less familiar.
Lemon balm has culinary uses and you can find quite a few lemon balm recipes. But it’s more widely regarded as a medicinal herb and is popular in herbal teas. The leaves are large and have a very distinct lemon aroma. Their flavor is of sweet lemon, which makes the leaves a wonderful way to add lemon flavor without tartness.
If this sounds like an herb you’d like to know more about, read on to see all the ways to use lemon balm and how to grow it in your herb garden.
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How to grow it
If you’re in USDA Zones 4-9, this perennial will come back year after year. Plant it in a sunny, well-drained spot and leave room for it to expand in all directions, which it will happily do. For other zones, the growing requirements are the same but you won’t need to worry as much about its expanding size. Speaking of that size….lemon balm is very easy to keep in check. Just harvest whole stems, cutting close to the ground, and the plant will stay pretty compact.
Once established, it needs very little care. In very dry weather, it might need a bit supplemental water. If the leaves seem droopy, give it a drink and it will perk right back up. Mature plants will make little white flowers through the summer. If left unchecked, they will re-seed throughout your garden the following year. These volunteers are very easy to spot and pluck, however, so it won’t be a disaster if you miss a few flowers.
To limit the re-seeding, just sheer off the upper 3-5 inches a couple of times each summer, if you’re not harvesting enough from the plant to keep it contained. In short, lemon balm is very low maintenance and you can easily cut it back to keep it the size you’d like.
Like most perennial herbs, lemon balm is easy to propagate by divisions, cuttings or laying in. It will root very easily at any time, just stick a cutting in soil or water and wait a few weeks. If you’re dividing a plant, it’s best to do so in the early spring when the plant has fully emerged. See How to Propagate Perennial Herbs for detailed instructions.
You can also let it go to seed and either collect seeds for future use or harvest the volunteer baby plants.
In the fall, sheer back most of the plant before or just after the first hard freeze. It will pop back up in the spring.
Using lemon balm in the kitchen
Lemon balm leaves are large and soft, with a strong aroma. Because of that, fresh leaves are best used in non-cooked applications. Use the leaves any time you want to add a sweet lemon flavor to food without using actual lemons. Here’s a few of my favorite ideas.
- loosely tear leaves and mix into cream cheese or goat cheese
- finely mince three tablespoons of leaves, them work into two sticks of butter, forming a lemony herb butter. It’s great on cooked fish, and even better if you add some dill to the butter mix!
- tear or chop leaves to garnish cooked meat, vegetables or salads. Fresh oregano and lemon balm make a fantastic garnish for grilled chicken.
- sprinkle minced leaves over fresh fruit, like strawberries or watermelon.
- if a recipe calls for lemongrass, lemon balm can pinch hit. The flavors aren’t identical, but lemon balm adds the same kind of botanical lemony flavor. And the whole leaves make a gorgeous topping in a bowl of Tom Gar soup.
Those are just some of the ways you can use fresh lemon balm to flavor your food.
Lemon balm leaves feature in several of my favorite herbal teas and infusion, especially Lemon Mint Iced Tea
But what about dried lemon balm?
Most large, leafy herbs are easy to dry and tend to hold onto their flavor, though there is obviously some loss. Dried lemon balm can be used in most of the same ways you use fresh leaves, but it will also standup better in cooked dishes. A tablespoon of dried, crumbled lemon balm can pack a fantastic lemon punch in soups or stews. Dried lemon balm is a great addition to herb blends, too – try it with dried oregano, basil and marjoram to add lemony lift to the classic Italian seasoning.
DISCLAIMER: As with any medicine or medicinal substance, consult your doctor before using. The information offered here is just that, information. It is not given as advice or medical guidance. Use at your own risk.
For more information about using herbs medicinally, I highly recommend these books:
Ways to preserve it
As noted above, it’s easy to dry the leaves and retain some of its flavor. See How to Dry Herbs for more information on harvesting, drying and storing herbs. You can freeze extras by laying the leaves on a piece of parchment paper and putting it in the freezer for a few hours. Store frozen leaves in a sealed bag or container. The flavor will hold up well but the texture will be quite soft, making the frozen leaves best for cooking or steeping.
Alternatively, infuse oil with fresh leaves, then freeze the oil into cubes. See Making Herb Oil for more information.
For shelf-stable use, infuse oil with dried leaves instead of fresh.
All of these methods offer a great way to store excess herbs. And remember that you can add it to other herb blends – it’s fabulous with rosemary, thyme, oregano or basil, to name a few.
Using lemon balm medicinally
Lemon balm is very versatile in the herbal medicine chest. The fresh leaves can be steeped to make a tea, tincture or tonic and the dried leaves are wonderful in tea blends. When taken internally, it can provide relief for anxiety and stress. Like many herbs, it has sedating properties as well, making it a wonderful ingredient in bedtime teas or tinctures. Dried or fresh lemon balm and chamomile flowers are a wonderful combination – delicious and soothing, a treat at bedtime.
When applied topically in salves or creams, it can sooth skin irritations or eruptions. It’s lovely as part of a skin calming salve, in combination with calendula and yarrow.
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