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Late spring is an amazing time in our garden. All the tiny seedlings that we bought when the weather was chilly and bleak are waking up. Their size has quadrupled, and their blossoms are of every shape, size, and color imaginable. Some even make me pause with disbelief that something so delicately painted and shaped is just waiting to be enjoyed. The garden is so alive with activity you can almost hear the plants growing. Because our garden is built on terraces, there are countless little valleys, little microcosms, each with its own nature.
One area is a carpet of short, compact plants with miniature white blossoms, another nook is filled with tones of pink and purple blooms held high on erect stalks, and yet a third is a river of orange and yellow Iceland poppies, glowingly translucent when the sun's rays hits their petals. Each plant proudly displays its art, calling out to be noticed. Among the noise of these blossoms, there is one plant, Lemon Balm, that quietly waits to be noticed; it doesn't have eye-catching flowers. It uses another method to attract attention. Aroma.
The fragrance of the plant is true to its name: citrusy and fresh. Even if I merely brush by the leaves the scent is released. This characteristic is what has made Lemon Balm such a favorite for so many years. Londoners of Elizabethan times would carry small bouquets, called Tussie Mussies, filled with aromatic herbs and flowers, including Lemon Balm, which they would frequently sniff to disguise the horrible stench of the unsanitary conditions of the day.
As far back as the ancient Greeks this plant was recognized for both its soothing smell and its medicinal properties. Greek physician Dioscorides would apply Lemon Balm to scorpion or animal bites for its antibacterial properties, and then give the patient wine infused with Lemon Balm to calm their nerves. This calming affect has often been noted throughout the years. The esteemed British herbalist Culpeper had these words to say in the mid-17th Century: "...[Lemon Balm] causeth the mind and heart to be Merry...and driveth away all troublesome cares." Little wonder it is still used today in aromatherapy to counter depression.
Like most herbs Lemon Balm is antibacterial and anti viral in nature. It is also a slightly sedative herb, lowering fever, relaxing spasms and improving digestion. I can attest to the latter. Many a night I have come home after an evening of too much good food and gone straight out to the garden to pluck a handful of the tender young leaves. I make a tea with them, being sure to release the essential oils by tearing the leaves. Add a bit of honey, and soon everything is a bit more serene, and dinner begins to settle.
It is not surprising that honey and Lemon Balm have a natural affinity. Lemon Balm's scientific name is Melissa officinalis, "Melissa" being a Latin derivation of the Greek word for honey bee ("officinalis" indicates that the plant is medicinal in nature). Honey from Lemon Balm smacks of citrus with a hint of mint.
Since the earliest of times people of the Mediterranean have known of honey bees' attraction to the herb. Not only are bees drawn to its lackluster flowers which bloom in the late summer, but to the fragrance of the leaves themselves. Bee keepers will often rub the inside of a new hive with the leaves to encourage a new swarm to stay. A bush of Lemon balm in a home garden provides the same invitation: more bees, more pollination, more flowers!
Originally native to southern Europe and northern Africa, Lemon Balm is now cultivated throughout the world, anywhere it finds rich soil and a bit of sun. A hardy perennial that grows to a height of about 2 1/2 feet, it can become invasive and leggy if not kept trimmed back. Look closely and you will notice that the stems are square; a reminder that Lemon balm is a relative of the mint family. The soft, green leaves are broad and spade shaped, with a scalloped edge. Heavily veined, they have a quilted appearance which lends a pleasing softness to the texture of my garden.
Lemon Balm, also called balm, is bushy all year long, but I find more ways to make use of its refreshing nature in these warm months. The taste of the leaves adds the perfect tangy note to fruit salads. Freshly steamed vegetables come alive when tossed with a chiffonade (thin strips or shreds of vegetables lightly saut»ed or used raw for garnish) of Lemon Balm and a touch of cracked pepper. For a general seasoning, use it in tandem with tarragon. Try adding some freshly minced leaves to lamb or fish marinades for the grill, and toss a few sprigs on the fire to perfume the air and keep away the mosquitoes. When using whole leaves be sure to handle them delicately; they tend to bruise and turn black. Combine Lemon Balm with other garden herbs for homemade herb vinegars. For a eye-catching garnish, freeze some small leaves into ice cubes to serve in lemonade.
More uses? If you run out of Pledge, you can just run up to the garden -- the leaves are supposedly good for polishing wood. Lemon Balm is also one of the ingredients in Benedictine, as well as many other liqueurs and digestives. Fresh, the leaves make for a lightly astringent facial steam. Dried, it imparts a citrusy fragrance to potpourri. It was even thought at one time to "...renew youth, strengthen the brain, and relieve languishing nature." There are so many diverse reasons for growing Lemon Balm in your garden!
Lemon Balm Vinaigrette
3 Tbls. lightly flavored olive oil
1 tsp. chiffonade of fresh lemon balm
1/8 tsp. salt
1/16 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
2 Tbls. rice wine vinegar
Combine all ingredients just before using, for the freshest taste and brightest color. Use as a salad dressing with baby lettuces and touch of grated, aged Jack cheese, or toss with fresh steamed veggies (it's delicious with asparagus!).
Linda Gilbert is a Bay Area freelance journalist, a cooking class instructor, and co-owner of a Sonoma catering company, Broadway Catering and Events.