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Lemon Balm Plant: Properties and Cultivation, both in Pots and in the Garden

The Melissa officinalis (also known as Citronella or lemon balm) has a strong lemon aroma and is appreciated for its beneficial properties. Here's how to cultivate it.

by BioGrow

The Lemon Balm Plant, also known as Citronella, is renowned for its intense aroma of lemon. It’s a plant that has been used since ancient times for its beneficial properties. In a seventeenth-century herbal, the French herbalist Nicholas Culpeper defined it as a plant that “cheers the heart and spirits and drives away the sadness and melancholy that arises from black bile“. In short, it’s a plant capable of improving our emotional disposition.

So, in this article, let’s discover the botanical characteristics of the lemon balm plant and explore its properties and uses. But, most importantly, let’s understand how to cultivate it organically, both in pots and in the garden.

Botanical Characteristics of the lemon balm plant

Lemon balm plant

Lemon Balm Plant, botanically known as Melissa officinalis, is a perennial herbaceous plant. It belongs to the Lamiaceae (or Labiateae) family, just like peppermint. It has rhizomatous roots from which numerous upright stems with quadrangular sections emerge, covered in a thin fuzz. These stems can reach a height of 50 to 90 cm. The leaves are intensely green, with a stalk. They are oval and toothed in shape and grow oppositely on the stem. The upper surface is quite rough, and they, too, are covered with a thin fuzz.
Flowering begins in May and ends in August. The flowers start off white but take on slightly pinkish hues toward the end. The small flowers are arranged in whorls that originate from the leaf axils. Inside the small calyx of the flowers, there are four achenes, which are the tiny seeds of the plant, oval in shape and grayish in color.

Properties of the Melissa officinalis

Essential Oils

Lemon balm leaves

The Melissa officinalis plant is rich in essential oil, a fragrant, oily, and volatile substance that has many properties. It also contains rosmarinic acid and flavonoids, both of which are considered natural antioxidants. The leaves, from which the essential oil is extracted, also contain the following substances: geranial (citral a) and neral (citral b), linalool, geraniol, and citronellol. All of these have sedative and antispasmodic effects.
The essential oil of lemon balm plant, which can be found here, is used for external applications due to its astringent and healing properties. The essential oil is also used for massages and rubbing, especially to alleviate rheumatic conditions, neuralgia, and headaches.

Herbal Tea and Infusion

Lemon balm flowers

The dried leaves and inflorescences can be used to prepare herbal teas and infusions with various therapeutic properties.
Lemon balm tea, thanks to the mild sedative activity of its active compounds, is an ideal natural remedy for nervous excitement and insomnia. It’s a relaxing tea that can be consumed before bedtime to calm the nerves and promote sleep.
Lemon balm infusion, being more concentrated, can be used as an antispasmodic. For example, it is useful in cases of painful and irregular menstrual cycles or abdominal cramps. It’s an ideal natural remedy for those suffering from psychosomatic gastric disorders related to excessive stress.
Because of these characteristics, Melissa officinalis is widely used in herbal medicine and considered a genuine natural anxiolytic.

In summer, the leaves of the lemon balm can be used to prepare excellent refreshing beverages with a pleasant lemon aftertaste (another synonym for the plant is lemon balm).

Cultivation of lemon balm plant

The Melissa officinalis grows wild in meadows and countryside borders, but it can be easily cultivated from seeds in a balcony pot or in the garden. In either case, it’s important to choose an appropriate location. The lemon balm plant has a dual characteristic—it is shade-loving and hygrophilous.
This means it thrives in shady areas, requiring a moist and water-rich environment. It’s sensitive to excessive heat and drought, so it should be placed in a shaded area. Regular irrigation is necessary during the summer. As a perennial plant, when grown in the garden, it’s best to place it at the edges of flower beds or in cool borders. However, do take care as this plant is also sensitive to periods of intense frost, so it should be properly protected from frost during the coldest winter months.

Sowing Period

Melissa officinalis

The ideal time to sow lemon balm seeds is the beginning of spring, from late March to the end of April. The seeds have a relatively long germination time, so direct sowing in open fields is not recommended. For sowing, small plastic pots with a diameter of 10 cm can be used. A few seeds should be sprinkled inside these containers and lightly covered with soil. The soil should always be kept moist.
To avoid washing away the delicate seeds, it’s important to use a garden sprayer for watering (if you don’t have one, you can find it here).
The seeds in the small pot will grow into a seedling that can be transplanted to the final location in the garden or a larger pot. This transplantation should be done approximately two months after sowing. Using pots allows for more controlled plant growth, preventing competition from weeds that could compromise the emergence of small shoots.
The distance to be maintained between plants is 25-30 cm. Space is required because, once established, the citronella plant propagates quickly. At the best nurseries, you can purchase fully-grown plants and avoid the sowing process. In this case, transplanting can be done from April to June.

Alternative Reproduction Methods

For the lemon balm plant, seeding is necessary when you do not have an already established cultivation or a mother plant. In the autumn or at the end of winter, Melissa officinalis can be propagated by dividing the clumps. We have already discussed this technique when talking about common sage.

Soil and Fertilization

Regarding the soil, there are two types to consider: the soil for sowing, which should be very fine, and the soil for cultivation.
One or more Melissa officinalis plants can be planted in a pot using a special soil for aromatic plants, with the addition of some expanded clay at the bottom of the pot to avoid water stagnation.
It’s advisable to use pots that are at least 40 cm deep to promote root growth. For potted cultivation, the bottom fertilization can be done by adding the result of domestic composting or vermicompost to the soil.
The cultivation in the garden, thorough and deep soil cultivation is recommended to favor root development. For fertilization, well-matured manure can be used, which should be buried at least one month before the planned transplant date.

Cultural Care

Whether cultivated in pots or in the garden, the main cultural care for the plant is weeding. Weeding involves removing weeds from the surroundings. This operation can be reduced by using natural mulch around the plant stems after the final transplant. Mulching will also help maintain the soil moist, something that the lemon balm plant appreciates.

Harvesting and Drying

properties of its leaves

The lemon balm plant’s leaves reach their maximum content of active principles just before flowering or when the shoots have not become too tough and woody. Once the leaves are harvested, it’s best to let them dry for about a week in a shaded and ventilated place. Always avoid direct sunlight, as it causes rapid darkening of the leaf blade. Once dried, they can be stored in glass jars and used as needed. For the preparation of refreshing drinks or as an aromatic herb to flavor summer salads, citronella can also be used fresh, just after harvesting.

Biological Pest Defense

Fortunately, this plant is not very attractive to pests; on the contrary, it keeps them away. Lemon balm plant on the balcony is an excellent natural remedy against mosquitoes.
However, during midsummer, there is a possibility that the plant may be attacked by some insects. In particular, cicadas, especially the species Eupterys salviae or sage cicada, are known to attack the Melissa officinalis. This is one of the few insects that, in general, are not deterred by aromatic plants.
In case of an infestation, it’s recommended to intervene with neem oil, which can be found in a specific formulation for agriculture here.

Further Reading

  • International Journal of Molecular Sciences – Melissa officinalis: Composition, Pharmacological Effects and Derived Release Systems-A Review – This review discusses the medicinal properties of Melissa officinalis, its biologically active compounds, and the development of controlled release systems with active substances from plants.
  • Front Biosci (Schol Ed) – An Updated Review on The Properties of Melissa officinalis L.: Not Exclusively Anti-anxiety – This article explores the medicinal activities of this plant, known in various countries for its therapeutic effects, including anti-anxiety properties.
  • Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine – Melissa officinalis L: A Review Study With an Antioxidant Prospective – This review focuses on a plant cultivated in parts of Iran, highlighting its digestive, carminative, antispasmodic, sedative, analgesic, tonic, and diuretic properties.

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