"Natural Healing with Herbs for a Healthier You"
THE BENEFITS OF THE USE OF LEMON BALM
IN HERBAL PREPARATIONS
HISTORY OF LEMON BALM
ANCIENT HISTORY OF LEMON BALM
To truly obtain a full understanding of lemon balm, within ancient historical context, we must look to the scientific name ‘Melissa officinalis’ for the beginning clues. The mystique that surrounds lemon balm is rich and spans thousands of years beginning in ancient Ephesus, known today as Turkey. It is here we begin to understand where lemon balm’s scientific name originates as well as its magical attributes and cherished healing powers.
“ In the Ephesian ceremonial the life of the bee was the model: the Great Goddess was the queen bee, the mother of her people, and her image was in outline not unlike the bee, with a grotesque mixture of the human form: her priestesses were called Melissai…” (1). Within ancient Greece religious doctrine, the Melissai priestesses served the Great Mother (Rhea or Cybele) or the Goddess of Earth and Nature such as Demeter, Persephone, and especially Artemis. The honeybee was considered to be a form the human soul took when descending from the Goddess Artemis herself. (2)
“It was only those souls who had lived a righteous life who were called Melissae, and afterwards they returned to heaven, just as the bee returned to her hive.” (3) Bees were not only important in the cosmology of ancient man but also in their commerce (honey, wax). Thus anything that helped to attract the valued honeybees to a hive, or keep the honeybees from swarming, gained in stature and usage to man as well. This is where lemon balm enters recorded history. Lemon balm was a sacred herb in the Temple of Artemis/Diana, and the herb that assisted the ancient beekeepers in keeping honeybees happy and well fed with nectar.
According to Pliny the Elder, bees were “delighted with this herb above others”; this statement accounts for lemon balm’s Greek derived scientific name “Melissa” and the lesser known name of “apiastrum”. Both of lemon balm’s given Greek names mean bee/honey bee. In ancient Greece sprigs of lemon balm were placed into beehives to attract wandering honeybee swarms.
Lemon balm was also planted around the bee’s hives to keep them happy and more apt to stay at the hive and not swarm away. (4,5)
The magical property of lemon balm, referred to by Pliny, seemed to be more of a sympathetic nature than an actual healing property. He wrote, “that the herb (lemon balm) tied to a sword which has inflicted a wound will stanch the blood”. (6) If one were to have followed Pliny’s dictum it would have been near impossible to find the specific sword that inflicted the wound after a large battle, to stop the wound’s bleeding. Perhaps this is more a case of poor translation of historical writings than sympathetic magical tracings on the part of Pliny. Dioscorides recommended application of lemon balm leaves to “the stings of venomous beast and the bites of mad dogs”. (7) He also stated “(the leaves) being smeared on they well assuage the pains of gout”. (8) I found in my research Pliny and Dioscorides were referenced to repeatedly in medieval and renaissance English herbals and material medicas. Whether this was due to actual working use of lemon balm by the herbal/material medica’s author or just repeated story is hard to deduce, but as with all folkloric herbal knowledge there is usually some grain of truth within. Homer’s Odyssey speaks of “sweet balm and gentle violets”(9) which to this author, gives credence of the high esteem beholden upon the healing virtues of lemon balm by our ancient forebearers.
MEDIEVAL AND RENAISSANCE HISTORY OF LEMON BALM
Moving forward from ancient times to the Medieval and Renaissance ages we find lemon balm gains even more virtuous standing amongst humans not only in its healing abilities but as a trade good and a literary muse and subject. “In the ninth century, the first Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne thought Melissa so beautiful and so valuable to the health of his subjects that he ordered it planted in all monastery gardens. Benedictine monks later shipped the herb to other regions…” (10)
Arabians are thought to be the first to have introduced lemon balm’s many uses to the European countries. Not only had lemon balm been a valued part of their Materia Medica for many hundreds of years, introduced to them from the Greeks, but was also grown as a herbal cash crop used in trade. (11) This introduction of lemon balm into Europe is thought to have occurred around the tenth century.
Lemon balm first appeared in a late Medieval/early Renaissance manuscript of the year 1440 as “herbe melisse” and “bawme”. (13) These names, plus “balm”, are the most commonly referenced names this author found given to lemon balm in most of the old herbal text up to around the mid 1900’s; then the name “lemon balm” seems to have taken preference as the herb’s nom de plume in botanical and herbal literature. The early name of “balm” was popularly used in reference to lemon balm’s balsamic nature due to its sweet smelling volatile oils and soothing qualities.(14)
Having followed their Holy Emperor Charlemagne’s orders, monastic monks began utilizing lemon balm in many creative ways. Monasteries were the first hospitals for the common man as well as nobility. Therefore, with lemon balm being a part of the monastery’s apothecary gardens, it was only a matter of time before its use became more beloved by the general European populace. Lemon balm was used for dressing wounds and as a general panacea or tonic, but the monks are more well known for using lemon balm to create perfumes and liquors which were very popular among the people of Medieval and early Renaissance periods.
A perfume containing lemon balm, known as Carmelite Water, was in high demand due more to practicality than the need to allure through scent. Carmelite Water helped to cover the stench of unwashed bodies as bathing was considered an “opening” for sinful thoughts due to exposure of naked skin to the eyes of the bather. As most people of that time period only bathed once a year, or in some cases once a lifetime, the need for sweet smelling perfumed waters was very high. Carmelite Water also covered the smell of disease (plague), death (from plagues), and filthy living environments (attributors to plague) so rampant at that period of human history.
The recipe for Carmelite Water was so prized that patents for it, under the name ‘Eau de Melisse des Carmes’, were granted by Louis XIV,XV, and XVI of France. This perfume patent was kept inviolate secret by the Carmelite friars who made it. All that is known of the patent recipe now is it was comprised of lemon balm flowers, coriander seeds, angelica root, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves pounded together and steeped in wine, (15) Carmelite Water was also used as a internal and external remedy for just about all ailments suffered in that period of history. Other herbal concoctions brewed by monastic monks are known to modern man as fine liquors and aperitifs. Many of these complex herbal formulations were used as general tonics and disease cures in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Two such formulas that contain lemon balm are the liquors known as ‘Chartreuse’ and ‘Benedictine’. ‘Benedictine’ contains twenty-seven herbs and spices of which lemon balm is one. In the early 1500’s lemon balm was used by a Venetian monk, Dom Bernard Vincelli, to create the liquor ‘Benedictine’. He did this in an effort to revive his fellow monks and even claimed his herbal elixir cured the local populace of malaria. (16) Whether through the liquor itself or the medicinal qualities of the herbs used in it, a supposition can be made that whoever took this elixir was bound to feel better in some form or another!
The herbal known as “The Grete Herball” written by Gerad, recommended using balm as an ointment for all aches; steeped in wine to “keep one from swooning if the cause be cold.” The “Horitus Sanitatis” recommends placing the dried leaves of lemon balm atop the head to “…draw out congestion and leave one light headed.” This book also states lemon balm is helpful to clear the chest, relive difficult breathing, and “helpeth conception more.” Lemon balm was also used for seasoning soups ans sauces and cold wine beverages in medieval times. (17)
Many herbalist and people of the Renaissance period continued to hold lemon balm in high regard for its healing ability, some attributing to it the potential for long life when taken every day in an elixir form. Gerad, the herbalist-surgeon, repeats the writings of Pliny and Discorides in his book “The Grete Herball” stating “…Drunk in wine, it (lemon balm) is good against the bitings of venomous beast, comforts the heart, and drives away melancholy…The juice glueth together green wounds.” (18)
John Parkinson, the author of “Paradisi I Sole Paradisus Terrestris” recommends using “Melissa, Balme…for baths in summer to comfort the sinews… steeped in ale, as a balm water for use instead of AquaVitae against suddaine qualms or passions of the heart.” (19)
Nicholas Culpepper, an astrologer herbalist of seventeenth century stated lemon balm was an “Herb of Jupiter and under the (astrological) sign Cancer, and it strengthens Nature (the body) much in al its actions.”(20) Culpepper re-iterated lemon balm’s uses as described by Pliny, Dioscorides, and Avicenna, a Muslim herbalist and philosopher of the ninth century. But Culpepper also added lemon balm could be used to “…open obstructions of the Brain; and hath so much purging quality in it…as to expel those melancolly vapors from the Spirits and Blood which are in the Heart and Arteries… it is food to wash aching Teeth therwith… It is good for the Liver and Spleen.” (21) Culpepper, following the tradition of Galenic medicine of his time, classified lemon balm as hot in the 2nd degree, dry in the 2nd degree affecting cold, moist conditions of the lungs, heart, and stomach. (22) Lemon balm was an herb dubbed by Paracelsus as “the elixir of life”. He combined lemon balm with carbonate of potash creating what he called ‘Primum Ens Melissae’. (23)
Lemon balm seemed to be a favorite of William Shakespeare; or perhaps he was just reflecting lemon balm’s popularity within his lifetime. In Shakespeare’s day lemon balm was used as a secret messenger or code, in the language of flowers, between lovers to signify sympathy. Shakespeare mentions lemon balm in his plays” King Richard II, King Henry IV, and King Lear”. In the plays, lemon balm is the herb used in the anointing or consecration of the kings, then again as help to assuage the king’s inevitable sorrows and grief. Shakespeare also mentions lemon balm in his plays “The Rape of Lucrese, Macbeth, and Antony & Cleopatra.” In “The Merry Wives of Windsor” lemon balm was referenced for use as a furniture polish to scent the chairs and banquet table before a feast. (24)
At this period of time in history ( mid 1500’s to 1700’s) colonization of the North American continent was occurring. The prospective settlers not only brought tools and equipment over with them but more importantly they brought their cherished medical herbal books and healing plants as well. Lemon balm was one of these herbs especially important for its multi-faceted uses. The colonist used lemon balm for cooking & flavoring, for beverages such as teas and wines, medicine, cosmetic and house- hold uses such as cleaning and scenting. In cooking, lemon balm was used for a ‘salet’ or salad herb, for flavoring meats, sauces, puddings, and cakes. Many Old Williamsburg recipes called for it. There are also records of Thomas Jefferson growing lemon balm at Monticello.(24)
As time went by lemon balm gradually fell out of favor for its medicinal powers, mostly due to lack of glamour when compared to other herbs of the day. It did not seem to purge or puke sufficiently enough to remain in good stead with the doctors of that time. This is evident in many of the nineteenth century American herbals, material medicas, pharmacopeias, or dispensatories. Examples of the dismissive attitude toward lemon balm can be seen from the American edition of “Pereiara’s Materia Medica”…”the effects of balm are similar to, though milder than, those of the labiate plants…” and “Potter’s New Cyclopedia” stating lemon balm is “carmative, diaphoretic, febrifuge”. (26,27) Potter’s also repeats information on lemon balm given by Culpepper and quotes Pliny much the same way earlier herbals did.
Today lemon balm is used in Switzerland as a flavoring agent for certain cheeses and generally as a cooking herb. (28) European studies have proven the anti-viral effectiveness of lemon balm specifically in shortening the healing time of herpes cold sores and outbreak of shingles. (29) Other studies are now being conducted on the use of lemon balm in the treatment of Grave’s disease, hyperthyroid, and Alzheimer’s/dementia. With hope today’s science will rediscover the magical healing virtues of lemon balm so cherished by our forebears and place lemon balm back in its rightful place in our modern day pharmacopeias.
1. “…Melissai (working bees), and a body of priest attached to the Temple was called Essenes (drones) Chapter 17, “The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia” by W.M. Ramsay
2. Pg 107, “The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times & Folklore” by Hilda M. Ransome
3. Pg 107, Ibid
4. Pg 18, “Health Plants of the World-Atlas of Medicinal Plants” by F.Bianchini & F. Corbetta
5. Online, www.complete-herbal.com <http://www.complete-herbal.com>
6. Part 2, pg 245 & 246, “Early American Gardens”for Meate or Medicine” by Ann Leighton
7. Part 2, pg 245 & 246, Ibid
8. Pg 20, “Herbs for the Mediaeval Household for Cooking, Healing, and Divers Uses” by Margaret B. Freeman
9. Pg 137, “Old Time Herbs for Northern Gardeners” by Minnie Watson-Kamm
10. Online, www.wholehealthmd.com <http://www.wholehealthmd.com>
11. Pg 139, “Old Time Herbs for Northern Gardeners” by Minnie Watson-Kamm
12. Online, www.complete-herbal.com <http://www.complete-herbal.com>
13. Pg 139, “Old Time Herbs for Northern Gardeners” by Minnie Watson-Kamm
14. Pg 76, Vol 1, “A Modern Herbal” by Mrs. M. Grieve
15. Pg 139, “Old Time Herbs for Northern Gardeners” by Minnie Watson-Kamm
16. Online, www.herbsforhealth.com <http://www.herbsforhealth.com>
17. Pg 20, “Herbs for the Mediaeval Household for Cooking, Healing, and Divers Uses” by Margaret B. Freeman
18. Pg 246, “Early American Gardens ”for Meate or Medicine” by Ann Leighton
19. Pg 246, Ibid
20. Online, “The English Physitian” by Nicholas Culpepper
21. Online, Ibid
22. Part 4, pg 220, “Culpepper’s Medicine-A Practice of Western Holistic Medicine” by Graeme Tobyn
23. Online, www.complete-herbal.com <http://www.complete-herbal.com>
24. Pg 140, “Old Time Herbs for Northern Gardeners” by Minnie Watson-Kamm
25. Pg 355 to 357, “Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs”
26. Pg 355, Ibid
27. Pg 26, “Potter’s New Cyclopedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations” by R.C.Wren
28. Pg181 & 182, “Health Plants of the World- Atlas of Medicinal Plants” by F.Bianchini & F. Corbetta
Pg 469, “ The Green Pharmacy” by James A. Duke PhD
by Melissa Morrison