A perennial herb with a short rhizome and an erect, much-branched square stem. The opposite, stalked leaves are ovate, yellow green and crenate. The small, two-lipped flowers, which grow in whorls in the upper leaf axils, change colour as they mature from a pale yellow through white to pale blue. The fruit consists of four smooth nutlets. All parts of the plant are finely hairy and have a strong lemon scent.
Balm is native to the eastern Mediterranean region but it has been widely introduced elsewhere. In the British Isles it often occurs as a garden escape and is naturalised in some parts of southern England. It is grown in gardens as food for bees, as a medicinal and culinary plant, and for ornament. In some countries it is commercially cultivated. Balm's connection with bees is reflected in the generic name, Melissa, which is from the Greek word for a honeybee. The common name, Balm, is an abbreviation of balsam, after its sweet-smelling aroma when fresh. Balm has been a medicinal herb for a long time. It was thought to be especially beneficial as a tonic in cases of anxiety and depression. It has been included in herbal wines and is still a constituent of liqueurs such as Benedictine.
The leaves are used medicinally. Their constituents include 0.1 to 0.25 per cent of an essential oil with citral, linalool, geraniol and citronellal as its main components, plus tannins, a bitter compound and hydroxyterpenic acid. It is the oil that imparts the lemon scent. Balm has carminative, antispasmodic, stomachic, diaphoretic and sedative properties. It is used in infusions for digestive disorders, nausea, flatulence, nervous anxiety, headache and insomnia. It can be used in pot-pourris, herb pillows and in herb mixtures for aromatic baths and cosmetic waters.
With their delicate lemon flavour the leaves have a variety of uses in cooking and they also make a refreshing addition to salads, cold drinks and wine cups.
Flowering time: July to August