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Balm

( Originally Published 1933 )



MELISSA OFFICINALIS, L.

Lemon Balm, Garden Balm

Labiatae Perennial

Balm is native to the Mediterranean and has escaped sparingly in the United States. It is a weedy plant which spreads over the ground, with inconspicuous flowers. For me it dies down during the winter. The charm of balm as a garden plant, aside from its interesting history, is the delicious lemony, minty scent from its leaves. If grown on a bank where one can stroke it in passing, it is always a delight to sniff its fragrance on one's fingers.

Root. There are numerous thin fibrous and shallow roots.

Stem. It grows up to three feet high, but my plants have not grown beyond fourteen inches, perhaps because they are in an exposed position. The stems are much branched, tall, straight, ridged, and hairy.

Leaf. The leaves are numerous, larger at the base and growing smaller as they ascend the stem; they are a deep green, of a thin texture, notched at the margins in round scallops; are covered with stiff little hairs above but only on the veins below; are opposite; and each pair is at right angles to the one above.

Flower. The flowers are in whorls in the leaf axils, not too numerous, more or less all the way up the stem. They are yellowish-white, and appear in August. The corolla is two-lipped, the upper one three-toothed, and the lower one with two longer, pointed spiny teeth. When bruised or touched the plant smells of lemon and mint, and it tastes like lemon peel. In my garden the flavor or scent is not very strong, possibly owing to the climate.

Variety. There is a variety of Melissa officinalis with variegated, yellowish leaves.

HISTORY AND LEGEND

Balm was known to Theophrastus and from this be-ginning was constantly mentioned by the Latin and Greek poets and the herbalists. The name melissa comes from the Greek word bee, and the plant has always been known as a bee plant. It was grown in Spain, and Ibn Al Awam advised mixing balm with honey or sugar, to smear inside of the beehive which had been prepared to receive a new swarm, to attract and attach the colony to its new home. He also quoted other writers, however, as saying this had the opposite effect. Ibn Baithar said if the whole plant, root, leaves, and seed, were dried, put into a piece of linen, sewed with a silk thread, and worn under one's dress it would make one beloved and agree-able to those one met. Besides, such a wearer would have all his wishes fulfilled, be gay, and happy as long as he wore this, and why not under such conditions?

It was mentioned in Stearns' "The American Herbal" in 1801.

USES

Medicine. Balm tea was thought to be good for fevers, headaches, and asthmas. It is said to be carminative and antispasmodic. The oil from the plant was in salves for healing wounds. According to Parkinson, the juice of it was made into a tansy with eggs, sugar, and rose water and given to women to bring on the afterbirth, others said it increased the flow of the milk. It was steeped in baths in summer. The "National Standard Dispensary" says it is official in most pharmacopoeias, although it is not in the one of the United States.

Perfume. The oil distilled from the leaves and young shoots enters into the manufacture of eau des carmes, which had a great reputation as a restorative, and is the ancestor of eau de cologne.

Food. Evelyn in his "Acetaria" says of balm, ... and the sprigs fresh gathered and put into wine or other drinks during the heat of summer give it a marvellous quickness. This noble plant yields an incomparable wine made as is that of cowslip flower." It was steeped in sack.

CULTURE

It is grown a little in the United States. Balm comes readily from seed. I sowed mine out-of-doors in early May and it germinated but did not flower the first summer. It seems to like a warm, sheltered position and should not have rich soil.

Harvest. The leaves and tops are used for preparing the oil, drug, or tea. They are picked early in the morning and when used for tea are dried in the shade to preserve their color.



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