*If you like this article and want to buy your own organic lemon balm tea, we highly recommend this one.
As you may have discerned, we’re a bit obsessed with plants. We love growing them. We love eating them. And we love teaching other people about them—especially how to grow them organically.
We also love sharing the amazing history of each plant that we send our members. If you don’t understand your roots (no pun intended), you tend to have historical amnesia and not appreciate what’s around you and where it come from. And the things we don’t appreciate or value, often get neglected.
Each garden seed we provide to our members has been on an amazing “grow journey,” often spanning many thousands of years of breeding across multiple civilizations and continents. We want our members to think about how many hands and gardens and farms those seeds passed through, how many oceans they crossed—and to appreciate the rich history of their seeds.
An heirloom seed is like a history book that you can eat.As such, we always provide a “history” section in each seed’s GrowGuide (the detailed growing instructions our members get to use via their online GrowJourney accounts).
Every now and then, we’d like to also share the history of a particular seed/plant with the public.
Right now in our garden, our lemon balm plants are at peak. Since early June, we’ve been getting piles of leaf harvests off them. Some of the plants are also covered in flowers, which means they’re also covered with pollinators (including our neighbor’s honeybees which are producing a bumper crop of honey this year). We’ve been enjoying big cups of hot and cold lemon balm tea with “neighbor” honey almost every day, so we thought this plant would make a worthy candidate for our first “plant history” blog post.
The History of Lemon Balm
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis L.) is a robust perennial herb in the mint family that serves a multitude of valuable functions in a garden or edible landscape:
- Food – Its leaves are delicious in teas, pestos, sauces and salads.
- Nectar for Bees & Other Beneficial Insects – It’s small white flowers are loaded with nectar and beloved by bees and other pollinators.
- Medicine – Modern science has corroborated lemon balm’s numerous medicinal benefits, for which it has been revered for thousands of years.
Lemon Balm: The Plant of the Gods
Lemon balm is believed to be native to the Mediterranean region, possibly from the area that is now modern-day Turkey.
In the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, people had a great cultural reverence for bees, whose honey and wax was an important part of daily life and commerce. This reverence was reflected in their religious beliefs. The Ephesians believed the honeybee was the form the human soul took when descending from the Goddess of Earth and Nature, Artemis. The great goddess was the queen bee, the Earth Mother, and her priestesses were called “Melissai,” from which the Latin name for lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, was derived. This is also why, today, the Greek word for honeybee is “Melissa.”
The expert beekeepers in Greek society revered any plant that could keep their bees happy, and lemon balm served this role perfectly. They planted the herb near their bee hives to help keep their honeybees well fed from the plant’s nectar-rich flowers and to help prevent the bees from swarming. For these reasons, the famed Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – AD 79), said bees were “delighted with this herb above all others.”
Lemon balm’s many uses made it extraordinarily popular, and the plant is referenced numerous times throughout ancient Asian, African, Middle Eastern and European texts. In the late 700s and early 800s AD, Emperor Charlemagne—”the father of Europe” whose rule spurred the Carolingian Renaissance—found lemon balm to be so beneficial to his health and the health of his subjects, that he requested it be planted in every monastery garden throughout his kingdom.
Interestingly, lemon balm makes appearances in many of William Shakespeare’s plays. For instance, at various points in his plays King Richard II, King Henry IV and King Lear, lemon balm was used to anoint new kings or to help them feel better during bouts of sorrow and grief.
Lemon Balm Comes to America
As waves of European settlers began coming to the Americas from the 1500s – 1700s, they brought their most prized plants and livestock with them. Thus, lemon balm and lemon balm seeds came over with America’s first settlers and was used as a food, a delicious spice in various dishes and drinks and as a medicinal herb.
One of America’s most prominent founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, also grew the herb in his gardens at his Monticello estate.
Legendary Medicinal Properties, Modern Science
Does the folklore surrounding the many medicinal attributes of lemon balm stand up to the scrutiny of modern science? Yes. Although not all of its medicinal qualities or the mechanisms by which it works are yet known, peer reviewed studies have shown that lemon balm can:
- significantly reduce stress and increase the sense of calmness;
- improve mood and general mental performance;
- increase the speed of mathematical processing;
- help improve mental functions of Alzheimer patients;
- help patients with thyroid disorders (due to its antithyrotropic properties);
- heal cells damaged by radiation exposure in subjects who drank lemon balm tea daily;
- aid in overall bodily health due to exceptionally high antioxidant activity.
The Journey Continues…With You
As you can see from this brief historical overview, lemon balm seeds have been on an amazing grow journey. From Greek mythology, to Charlemagne, to Shakespeare, to Thomas Jefferson, lemon balm has enjoyed quite an important and storied history over the millennia. Modern science is just beginning to understand the mechanisms by which this beautiful, flavorful herb can improve your health, but you can just as easily enjoy it for its delicious lemony flavor as you can for its many medicinal properties. If you have lemon balm growing in your garden, we hope you’ll cherish and share its leaves and its seeds so the grow journey continues—after all it’s your grow journey too!
Just in case you’re not already a GrowJourney Seeds of the Month Club member, we’d love for you to give us a try (for free) to see if you’d like to start growing with us! And don’t forget: a GrowJourney Gift Membership also makes a unique and special gift.