Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is a perennial herb in the mint family. In my garden it grows to one foot tall and as wide. It appreciates a part sun location and supplemental water during the extreme heat of the summer. Lemon Balm isn’t fussy about soil, but it will grow lusher if some organic matter is added to the planting hole.
It’s considered a calming herb and has been used since the Middle Ages to reduce stress and anxiety, and promote sleep. It is considered GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) and mild enough for children (but seek guidance for dosing suggestions). The green, somewhat crinkly leaves have a sweet-tart, lemon-y flavor and scent. Lemon Balm is delicious added to recipes that benefit from this flavor and is wonderful as a tea pot herb.
After you’ve had lemon balm in your garden for a few years you’ll have an embarrassment of riches to harvest each fall. I always wait to harvest until the insignificant flowers fade so I know that the seed has been sown (increasing my patch every year). The flowers are light yellow and grow where the leaves meet the stem, giving the plant a somewhat ratty appearance. If you can’t tolerate this look, simply snip off the flowers when they appear in mid to late summer. Tip: when the flowers first appear, place a few pots filled with soil around the mother plant and you will notice little seedlings in a few weeks.
To harvest Lemon Balm choose a sunny morning after the dew has evaporated, but before the heat of the day comes on, so that the essential oils are preserved. Use sharp pruners and remove no more than 1/3 of the plant. Make cuts so that they are just above a leaf node to protect the plant. Remove the leaves from the stems, wash them gently and spin them dry.
The most popular method of preserving lemon balm is to dry it. It retains its lemon-y flavor and medicinal value, and is a nice addition to the tea pot through the cold, dark days of winter.
But there is another way of preserving lemon balm that I really enjoy: making tincture. Tinctures are concentrated herbal extracts that use alcohol as the solvent. They are very portable and can be taken neat (straight from the dropper) or diluted in tea.
When choosing the type of alcohol to use, consider one that is relatively tasteless (my favorite is vodka). For best results use ½ 80 proof vodka and ½ 190 proof grain alcohol (recommended for high moisture herbs like Lemon Balm), which will yield a tincture with 67.5-70% alcohol. 190 proof grain alcohol is sometimes difficult to find (it’s usually on the bottom shelf, is quite cheap, and you’ll have to face the smirk of the cashier), so if you prefer you can use a readily available 80-90 proof vodka, which will yield a tincture with 40-50% alcohol. Tinctures are portable and can be taken straight by the dropper or diluted in tea.
Supplies you will need to make Lemon Balm tincture are organic herbs (you must be sure that the herbs have NOT been sprayed with any chemicals), alcohol, glass jars, a knife, a funnel, cheesecloth, and dark colored dropper bottles. Before getting started, dip the glass jars, knife and funnel in boiling water to sterilize them.
The procedure is easy: Chop Lemon Balm leaves and fill the glass jar up to ¾ to the top. Pour the alcohol over the herbs to fill the jar (be sure the plant material is completely covered). The jar should be full, but you when shake the jar the herbs should move about. Place a piece of plastic wrap over the top and screw on the lid. It’s a pretty good idea to put a label on the jar with the date it was created so you’ll know when it’s ready to bottle.
Store the jar in a cool, dry, dark place. Shake the mixture every few days and check the alcohol level. If some of the alcohol evaporates, add more (it’s important that the plant material remain covered or you may risk the growth of mold and bacteria).
After 6-8 weeks, the properties of the herb will be extracted into the alcohol. At this point, place a funnel in the dark bottle. Place a piece of damp cheesecloth over the funnel and pour the mixture into it. Most of the liquid will drip into the bottle, but there will be more trapped in the plant material. To extract all the liquid, align the edges of the cheesecloth and twist until no more liquid drips out.
It’s important to label the bottle so that you remember what it contains. I label with the common (Lemon Balm) and botanical (Melissa officinalis) name of the herb, part of the plant used (leaves), alcohol percent, and the date of the extraction. If kept in a cool, dry, dark place, your extract should remain viable for several years.
Making herbal tinctures is fun and rewarding – and good for your health. Lemon Balm is known for its ability to reduce stress and anxiety. If you want to know more about the health benefits and dosing suggestions of Lemon Balm check out this article by Dr. Weil: http://www.drweil.com/vitamins-supplements-herbs/herbs/lemon-balm/.
Thanks to Mare Maia for the great photo.