The Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center graces the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas, and helps us to interpret the history of the human use of plants. 

Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, is a sweet smelling perennial herb from the Mediterranean region in south-central Europe, North Africa and Central Asia. It is in the Lamiaceae (mint) Family. The plant dies back to the ground in the winter and then begins growing anew in early spring. The plants grow in clumps that grow into larger patches from root stocks that are actually underground stems. Square stems extend upward from the earth to about two and a half feet tall. Ovate, toothed leaves are arranged on the stem opposite one another. At the pinnacle of growth the herb produces buds, followed by small, white tubular flowers that appear at the top of the stems, at the base of the leaves. The plants are light green and slightly hirsute (hairy). Sniffing for the lemon furniture polish-like smell is one of the best ways to positively identify this herb.

To dry or tincture lemon balm, harvest it just before the flowers open. The essential oils are strongest at that point. Cut the stems at ground level, after the dew has dried from the leaves, but before the heat of the day sets in, on a sunny day. The plants will send up new growth within a few days if the soil is kept moist. Take the cut herbs to the kitchen immediately to keep them out of direct sun.

It is easiest to strip the leaves and buds from the stems after the plant material is dry. To dry lemon balm, I place the cut stems, loosely into large paper sacks, left open. These sacks are placed in the backseat of my truck, where they dry quickly in that solar oven. The scent cheers me as I drive along. When the leaves are crispy dry, I strip them into labeled, brown glass jars. These are kept in a dark, cool pantry and are used to make infusions.

I make lemon balm tinctures using 90 or 100 proof vodka. This is a very easy process. After stripping the fresh leaves and buds from the stems, I crush the herbs with a mortar and pestle, place them in a clean, labeled, glass jar and then cover with the vodka. This works out to be one part lemon balm leaves to two parts vodka. I make sure there is enough vodka to completely cover the herbs. Then I cover with a tight-fitting lid and put the jar where I will remember to shake it morning and evening for two to four weeks. After the time has passed, I filter out the plant material and bottle the tincture, being sure to label it with the date and contents.

Lemon balm makes a nice beverage, served warm or cold. It has been used to treat digestive and nervous disorders and to chase away melancholy. Scientific studies have shown that therapeutic doses reduce damage caused by low levels of radiation and suppress the eruption of herpes simplex (cold sores).  It is a mild sedative. I use drops of the tincture in hot milk when I find it hard to get to sleep.

Lemon balm is just so easy to grow and so handy to have in the home apothecary, I would not want to be without it growing in my herb garden. If I don’t see you in the future—I’ll see you in the pasture!