MELISSA (Melissa officinalis – Labiatae)

Commonly known as balm or lemon balm (as well as bee balm and sweet balm), melissa is a hardy herbaceous perennial native to southern Europe. It was introduced to northern Europe by the Romans. It has wrinkled and toothed, pale-green, nettle-like leaves, with tiny white flowers in June and July. The whole plant is fragrant, with a strong lemony smell. It makes a good garden plant, but it also grows wild in Europe, carpeting fields and woods, particularly around Angers in France.

The name melissa derives from the Greek word for bee because the plant is irresistible to bees and has been grown for this purpose for centuries.

Melissa has been known and appreciated since the time of the ancients. Theophrastus and Dioscorides wrote of melissophyllon (bee leaf) as being emmenagogic, a sedative and vulnerary. Avicenna recommended it because it was cheering, a property still very much part of the plant’s effect: other Moslem and Arab writers considered it very important for treating melancholy and heart conditions. Melissa’s fame continued in France, as it was the ingredient of Carmelite water, the ‘Eau de melisse des Carmes’ distilled in Paris since 1611 by monks. An early version of eau de cologne, the water was used medicinally as a digestive and antispasmodic, and it still finds a place in many French households.


Description: The plants are harvested in France in Mayor June just before the first flowers appear for the aroma is less interesting when the plant is in bloom. The oil is steam distilled from the melissa leaves and tops, and is pale yellow with an agreeable and subtle, warm, lemony aroma. Melissa oil is not common and it is very expensive because 7 tonnes are needed to produce 1 kg (21/4 lb) oil. It is very special.

The principal constituents: Citral, citronellol (responsible for the lemony smell), geraniol, limonene, linalool and pinene.

Dangers: The expense of manufacturing melissa oil leads to falsifi-cation, usually with citrus oils or lemongrass (itself sometimes called melissa grass). As a result, you should buy melissa very carefully, as the remedy is more or less useless if the oil is not pure. Melissa is often confused with citronella.

The oil is classified in France as a ‘stupifiant’ (narcotic), thus great care must be taken with its use. Research in the nineteenth century by Cadeac and Meunier revealed that the oil taken internally without food could provoke most unpleasant reactions – severe headache, sudden low blood pressure, and difficulty in breathing.

Melissa oil must be administered extremely carefully, especially so with children, and I do not advise its use by non-practitioners.


In illness
Melissa is antispasmodic, emmenagogic, a stimulant for the nervous system, and a tonic for the cardiac system. It is extremely good for headaches, depression, nervous anxiety, palpitations and insomnia.

Although I don’t advise you to use essential oil, you can take advan¬tage of the plant itself, either making a tea from the leaves, eating it in salads or infusing it in alcohol. For a general tonic and a simple remedy for migraine, depression, PMT and menopausal symptoms, macerate 50 g (2 oz) melissa leaves for 48 hours in 1 litre (2 ¼ pints) good white wine: strain and drink 30 ml (1 tbsp) whenever symptoms appear.

Melissa tonic
This old family recipe is slightly more complicated than the above mixture, but it is more effective.

  • 1 litre (2 1/4 pints) vodka
  • 50 g (2 oz) melissa leaves
  • 15 g (1/2 oz) lemon peel
  • 15 g (1/2 oz) ground nutmeg
  • 10 g (1/3 oz) raw angelica
  • 10 g (1/3 oz) cloves
  • 5 g (1/6 oz) powdered cinnamon or sticks

Macerate the herbs and spices in the vodka for a fortnight, keeping the bottle tightly corked and in the dark. Filter, pressing all the ingredients well, and then cork firmly again. Drink a coffee spoonful – no more whenever symptoms appear.

Melissa tea
This is slightly sedative (because of the citronellol) and is good for insomnia due to high blood pressure around the time of menstruation or menopause. It is also very good for nervous tension and depression. Put a good 15 ml (a heaped tbsp) of leaves in the teapot, add 600 ml (1 pint) boiling water and infuse for 10 minutes. Drink two to four times a day with a little honey if desired. It is a very pleasurable drink and I have found it very helpful, especially as a tonic in the morning.

(See also anaemia, anorexia nervosa, colic, coughing, cramp, dysmenorrhoea, stings and bites and stress.)

In cookery
Lemon balm leaves have traditionally been used in wine cups and iced summer drinks – for those merry-making properties presumably! The young shoots and leaves give their lemony flavour to stuffing’s, savoury or fruit salads, sauces and omelettes; they are used in Spain in soups, and with fowl, game and fish dishes. A few fresh leaves can replace lemon or lemon grass in most recipes. It is a sweet herb, so can be used in desserts like syllabub. In Spain it perfumes milk – leche perfumada con melissa ¬so could be used in milk puddings. The leaves can be crystallized and added to jams and jellies.

Other uses
Melissa leaves have long been an ingredient of pot-pourris because of their cheering effect. They were also used as a strewing herb, in rinsing water for linen, and in herb pillows and bags. In France, the plant is also called ‘bee’s pimento’, and many believe the bees revive after taking the nectar from the flowers! Certainly, the association between bees and balm has been appreciated for years: Pliny noted that hives were rubbed with balm leaves to attract and keep swarms. Balm oil was also added to a syrup to attract queens, and many orchards were traditionally planted with balm to encourage bee pollination. And, very usefully, if your lemon balm attracts bees and you get stung, balm will also soothe the pain – simply crush the leaves and rub them on the area.

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