living things

A Few Herbs You Should Know and Grow, Part 1: Lemon Balm and Lavender

There are few and far between who don’t love and lovingly utilize the top tier of herbs, the go-to basil, cilantro, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. All are among the most widely used in my kitchen and grown in the garden. But, there are so many herbs and roots that go unnoticed, despite their shockingly potent medicinal uses and delicious culinary applications. I do not claim to be an expert on herbalism or the growing and propagation of any of the herbs featured here, but what I have learned about these powerful little plants has pleasantly surprised me and sparked my interest for herbalism and natural remedies…

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Melissa Officinalis: Commonly Lemon Balm/Bee Balm, Family Labiatae

This lovely plant, historically called a “cure-all,” produces a lemon scented volatile oil within its leaves and is considered one of the most potent herbs in aromatherapy, herbalism, and naturopathic medicine.

Melissa is a bushy perennial about fifteen to eighteen inches high, that often dies back in winter.  It is hardy in zones four-nine and will grow in almost any soil. If kept in partial shade, lemon balm is not too particular about water, but if planted in full sun, make sure to water regularly. I find this herb (from the same family as mint) particularly resilient, as I started my first plant in a small pot that quickly went root bound and was neglected over its dormancy in late fall/winter.  After transplanting into a sunny spot in the garden the next spring, it enthusiastically revived, producing a whole new bush, even more shoots and white spired blooms. This plant thrives if cut back often throughout the growing season.

Lemon Balm can be used internally as a relaxant for nervous disorders, indigestion with nervous tension, hyperthyroidism, as a sedative to relieve depression, anxiety, palpitations, and tension headaches.

It has long been considered an aromatic cooling and naturally sedative herb that lowers fever, relaxes spasms and the peripheral blood vessels. Externally, the herb has been used for its anti-viral properties to treat wounds, for healing herpes simplex virus (cold sores), gout, and insect bites.

Whole plant, leaves, and oil are used to impart a fresh, green, earthy lemon flavor in culinary uses, including herbal teas and salads. I even canned a Raspberry/Salmonberry Lemon Balm Jam (yum!) a few summers ago by simply adding fresh chopped lemon balm to my preserves.

According to one of my favorite herb references The New Healing Herbs, by Michael Castleman:
  • To use medicinally, you can treat minor wounds by making a hot compress consisting of two teaspoons of fresh lemon balm leaves per cup of water- Boil for ten minutes, strain, and apply with a clean cloth. You can also apply fresh crushed lemon balm leaves to minor cuts.
  • To make a light infusion that soothes the stomach, relieves anxiety, and promotes sleep, use two teaspoons of fresh lemon balm leaves per cup of water- Steep ten to twenty minutes, strain, and drink (up to three cups daily).
  • As a tincture, take one to one and a half teaspoons up to three times daily.
  • Lemon Balm leaves can also be added to a warm bath to soothe and relax before bed-time

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Lavendula Augustifolia: Commonly called Lavender, Family Labiatae

Historically known as the “First Herb of Aromatherapy,” lavender has long been used for its calming, restorative, and healing qualities.

Lavender is grown as an ornamental species all over the world and on large scales (farming) for its oil, flowers, and leaves.  It is a woody, branching perennial shrub that can grow to about three feet (depending on the cultivar).  In summer it produces small blue purple flowers that develop into long spires. This perennial grows extremely well in sunny locations but prefers sandy soil and is hardy in zones five-eight.

Lavender is considered an aromatic tonic herb with a sweet floral scent.  It has been known to relax spasms, benefit digestion, stimulate peripheral blood circulation, lower fevers, and is an antiseptic that has anti-depressant effects that can treat anxiety and stress. Because it is (also) from the same family as mint, lavender helps calm the smooth muscle lining the digestive tract, promoting the secretion of bile that helps our bodies to digest fat.

It is often used internally for nervous tension, indigestion, depression, anxiety, exhaustion, insomnia, irritability, tension headaches, migraine, and bronchial ailments. Externally it can be applied for burns, sunburn, rheumatism, muscular pain, skin issues, insect bites/repellant, lice, halitosis, and the list goes on…Both the flowers and leaves are used in culinary applications including but not limited to herbal teas, jams and jellies, salads, vinegars, and marinades. There are only a few culinary lavenders that retain their purple color when dried, particularly Lavendula Augustifolia “Royal Purple” and “Tuckers Early Purple,” which are preferred in culinary use so the herb is recognizable within the dish.

Michael Castleman of The New Healing Herbs suggests…
  • Too create an infusion, use one to three teaspoons of lavender flowers per cup of boiling water- steep for ten minutes and strain.  Drink up to three cups daily. Apply a compress of this lavender infusion to treat minor wounds or burns (after cleaning the affected area).
  • As a tincture, take one teaspoon up to three times daily, which may also be applied topically to wounds and burns.
  • Pure lavender essential oil and salts/soaps with lavender oil added to a warm bath make a soothing, calming, sleep aid before bed-time.

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There are many amazing herb references out there today, that a simple library catalog search or online search will help you find any information you may be interested in.  Once you start using herbs in your everyday practice, you will find your food/life very bland without them. I am addicted to using fresh cut herbs and even dried herbs from my own garden above pre-mixed seasonings. There are also several natural bulk herb suppliers locally and online if you don’t have the time, space, or green thumb required to grow your own! Just make sure you research the quality, growing practices, and  species/variety/subspecies cultivar before buying and using any herbs online or in a commercial setting… In addition, always research and use caution when implementing herbs in any medicinal practice. Consult a physician before using to treat any specific symptoms or if you are prone to or have any pre-existing conditions or food allergies. 

My favorite herbalism references include:

The Herb Society of America’s New Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses by Deni Brown- A true comprehensive encyclopedia of herbs and their cultivars with listed medicinal and culinary uses, as well as horticultural information

The New Healing Herbs: Essential Guide To More Than 125 of Nature’s Most Potent Herbal Remedies by Michael Castleman- An encyclopedia-like reference that will help you learn how to grow, use, and store your herbs, along with practical ideas for how to use them in everyday practice

Earth Mother Herbal: Remedies, Recipes, Lotions, and Potions from Mother Nature’s Healing Plants by Shatoiya De La Tour- a lovely little compendium of a few of the most popularly grown herbs for relatively simple remedies

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Additional photo credit to Michele Joseph for her image of the lavender fields at the 2014 Sequim Lavender Festival.
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