by Karen Cottingham
Lemon balm, that delightfully lemony herb, has been used medicinally for centuries. The many beneficial properties of Melissa officinalis were recorded as early as 300 BCE by Theophrastus in his great work on natural history, Historia Plantarum. In a later compilation of useful plants, De Materia Medica (50-80 BCE), the Greek physician Dioscorides wrote of lemon balm’s ability to “sweeten the spirit”. From that time on, physicians, herbalists, and naturalists from Greek and Roman antiquity, ancient Persia, the monasteries and convents of medieval Europe, the emerging scientific world of Renaissance England, and the newly settled American colonies all extolled the virtues of lemon balm as a reliable remedy for emotional distress and other disorders.
Avicenna, the great 11th century Persian physician (980-1037), found that “balm makes the heart merry and joyful, and strengthens the vital spirits.”
A century later, Saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) wrote that “lemon balm contains within it the virtues of a dozen other plants”. She recommended a tea of lemon balm and fennel fronds, saying that “lemon balm reduces the effects of harmful humours [sic] and prevents them from gaining the upper hand.”
The 16th century Swiss alchemist and physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) was so confident in the medicinal properties of lemon balm that he prescribed it for “all complaints supposed to proceed from a disordered state of the nervous system.” His famous “Elixir of Life,” a miraculous concoction said to revive patients close to death, prevent senility, and cure impotence, depended primarily on lemon balm for its miraculous healing effects.
Another highly regarded healing elixir was Carmelite Water, first prepared about 1380 by the nuns of the Carmelite Abbey of Saint Juste and still available for purchase. The original formula is shrouded in mystery, having been passed down in secrecy from nun to nun, but was most likely a combination of lemon balm, angelica, nutmeg, and lemon peel infused into wine or brandy.
Over the years, the ingredient list for this elixir quite remarkably expanded to include orange flower water, lily of the valley, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, sage, mugwort, lavender, Roman chamomile, elecampane, savory, fennel, sandalwood, great yellow gentian, galangal, bitter orange, green anise, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, coriander, and/or clove. The one constant, though, was lemon balm; with its reputation for calming a nervous disposition, the heart-shaped lemony leaf was always the featured ingredient.
For a gloomy mood or a broken heart that needs soothing, Carmelite water can still be purchased or, better yet, made at home. See https://blog.mountainroseherbs.com/herbal-carmelite-water-recipe or https://picnicinakeldama.wordpress.com/2016/07/20/carmelite-water-a-herbal-tonic-for-mind-body-and-soul/ for instructions.
The marvelous reputations of lemon balm and Carmelite Water spread throughout Europe during the Renaissance, where the healing herb and its elixir were particularly admired by the great English herbalists.
John Gerard (c.1545-1612), the English botanist, herbalist, and barber-surgeon, compiled the massive 1,484-page illustrated Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes published in 1597. His assessment of lemon balm echoed his herbal predecessors: “drunk in wine, it (lemon balm) is good against the bitings of venomous beast, comforts the heart, and drives away melancholy.”
Another admirer of Carmelite Water was Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), the English botanist, herbalist, physician, and astrologer. In his 1563 book, The English Physician, (later re-titled The Complete Herbal), he wrote that Carmelite Water “causeth the Mind and Heart to becom [sic] merry … and driveth away al [sic] troublesome cares and thought.”
Culpeper also added that 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.”
Specially designed herbal elixirs were available for every ailment imaginable, including infections. Starting in the 14th century, waves of deadly pandemics spread all over Europe, eventually reaching London as the Great Plague of 1665-1666. Desperate to control these mysterious and devastating outbreaks, physicians, herbalists, apothecaries, and interestingly, housewives devised their own complex versions of protective “Plague Waters.”
“Agua epidemica” was a popular Plague Water that included lemon balm, along with masterwort, angelica, peony, butterbur, viper-grass, Virginia snakeroot, rue, and rosemary. All the herbs were infused in spirit of wine and then distilled.
The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion is Eliza Smith’s massive 1727 cookery book. Mrs. Smith included her own version of Plague Water, which also contained lemon balm:
Take rosa folis, agrimony, betony, scabious, century tops, scordium, balm, rue, wormwood, mugwort, celandine, rosemary, marigold leaves, brown sage, burnet, carduus, and dragons, of each a large handful; and angelica-roots, piony-roots, tormentil-roots, elecampane-roots and licorice, of each one ounce; cut the herbs, and slice the roots, and put them all in an earthen pot, and put to them a gallon of white wine and a quart of brandy, and let them steep two days close cover’d; then distill it in an ordinary still with a gentle fire; you may sweeten it, but not much.
You have to admire a housewife, “Accomplish’d Gentlewoman” or not, who had the skills to put this recipe together! And by the way, “dragons” in this Plague Water recipe probably denotes tarragon. To the medieval eye, the roots of tarragon apparently looked like the tail of a dragon, giving rise to its common name “little dragon” as well as its official name Artemisia dracunculus.
Today, although we no longer use lemon balm for infections, numerous clinical studies have shown that lemon balm taken in a wide variety of ingested forms relieves chronic anxiety, reduces laboratory-induced psychological stress, and improves sleep quality (Cases, Ibarra, Feuillère, Roller, and Sukkar, 2011). Our modern scientists now concur with what the herbalists and physicians of old had known so well – that lemon balm is an excellent medicine to “sweeten the spirit” and “expel those melancolly vapors”!
For more on the fascinating world of lemon balm and other lemon-scented herbs, please read Karen’s article in the South Texas Unit Newsletter for August 2022 For more information, a beautiful screensaver, and recipes please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month web page.
Photo Credits: 1) Melissa officinalis (Erin Holden); 2) Avicenna (public domain); 3) Hildegard von Bingen (RichHein via Wikimedia); 4) Cordials (Jim Champion via Wikimedia); 5) Nicholas Culpepper (Wellcome via Wikimedia); 6) Lemon balm cordial (public domain)
Cases, J., A. Ibarra, N. Feuillère, M. Roller, and S. G. Sukkar. 2011. Pilot trial of Melissa officinalis L. leaf extract in the treatment of volunteers suffering from mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances. Med J. Nutrition Metab. 4(3): 211-218.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Karen Cottingham lives in Houston, Texas, but she grew up in a farming community in rural Washington state. After a long career in medicine, Karen now devotes most of her time to sharing her knowledge and enthusiasm for all aspects of herbs. She serves as Program Chair of the South Texas Unit (STU), contributes articles to various STU and Herb Society of America publications, and provides the content for the HSA-STU Facebook page. Karen particularly enjoys introducing herbs to the public through demonstrations at libraries, museums, elementary schools, and public gardens.