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Lemon balm, scientifically known as Melissa officinalis, is a versatile herb cherished for its soothing, citrus-scented leaves. Its lemony aroma attracts bees and other pollinators to your garden, helping to build a healthy ecosystem.
So, does lemon balm plant smell like lemon? Yes! The scent of lemon balm is a delightful and refreshing combination of lemon and mint. This is because lemon balm, like other plants in the mint family, contains certain essential oils and compounds that contribute to its unique fragrance.
The lemon-like scent of lemon balm is primarily due to a compound called citral. Citral is also found in lemon peel, which is why the smell is so similar. In addition to citral, lemon balm contains other aromatic compounds, such as citronellal and geraniol, which contribute to its distinct scent.
Lemon balm’s aroma is released when the leaves are crushed or bruised, and it’s often used in aromatherapy for its calming and uplifting effects.
When you rub a leaf of lemon balm between your fingers, you’ll immediately notice this fresh, lemony aroma, bringing a sense of joy and calm. This is one of the many reasons gardeners love to have this herb in their green spaces.
The benefits of growing lemon balm in your garden are numerous. To begin with, the plant’s scent alone is a delight to the senses. It creates a refreshing, calming environment that can truly transform a garden space. Lemon balm also has a long history of medicinal use. Its leaves possess calming properties, aiding in sleep, reducing anxiety, and alleviating digestive problems.
As food, lemon balm serves a variety of purposes. Its mildly citrus-flavored leaves can be used in salads, to flavor drinks, or as garnishes in a range of dishes.
Not to forget, this herb is a bee magnet. Planting lemon balm is a great way to attract bees and other beneficial insects, contributing to a healthier ecosystem.
Aesthetically, lemon balm is a beautiful bushy plant, with its bright green leaves and small, delicate flowers.
Lemon balm has its disadvantages, too. One primary concern is its invasive nature. Given the right conditions, lemon balm can spread quickly through a garden, overtaking other plants. Its root system is robust and can push out other plants competing for space and nutrients. It’s critical to manage lemon balm effectively to ensure it doesn’t choke out your other plants.
Moreover, while lemon balm attracts bees and other beneficial insects, it can also attract pests like aphids and spider mites. Keeping a regular check on your plants can help nip any pest problems in the bud.
Lastly, while lemon balm is generally resilient, it can be susceptible to certain diseases like powdery mildew and rust, particularly in humid conditions. Providing the right care and quickly addressing any signs of disease can help keep your lemon balm healthy and thriving.
Lemon balm is a perennial herb and, weather permitting, will return year after year. The lifespan of lemon balm is approximately 3-5 years, sometimes even more with proper care.
Generally, it grows to a height of 12-24 inches and can reach up to 2-3 feet wide.
Lemon balm has a reputation for being a prolific grower. As a member of the mint family, it exhibits a vigorous growth habit and has a tendency to spread easily under the right conditions.
This spreading occurs due to its extensive root system. Lemon balm grows from a network of underground stems known as rhizomes, which allow the plant to colonize large areas fairly quickly. This can be a double-edged sword for us as gardeners. On the one hand, if you love lemon balm and want plenty of it in your garden, this trait is beneficial. On the other hand, it can become a problem if lemon balm starts to invade the space of other plants or take over areas where it’s not wanted.
How extensively lemon balm spreads depends on a variety of factors, including the growing conditions and how well the plant is managed. If given an ideal setting with fertile soil, plenty of sunlight, and adequate water, lemon balm can spread quite aggressively. However, it tends to be less invasive in less-than-ideal conditions.
One way to control the spread of lemon balm is through regular harvesting. By frequently trimming the plant and removing some of the stems and leaves, you can help keep its growth in check. Another option is to grow lemon balm in containers, where its spread can be physically limited. If you are planting in the ground and concerned about spreading, consider using a root barrier to prevent the plant from taking over.
Additionally, be sure to harvest the flowering tops before they go to seed and spread.
Lemon balm prefers full sun but can tolerate partial shade. Choose a spot in your garden with well-drained soil where it can bask in at least 5 hours of sunlight per day for optimal growth.
Lemon balm growing in full sun tends to be more robust and compact, due to the plant’s effort to conserve water and protect itself from the intensity of the sunlight. The result is often a bushier plant with thicker foliage.
On the other hand, lemon balm grown in partial shade will stretch or “reach” for light, leading to taller, slightly less dense growth. It will also grow larger leaves in an attempt to capture as much sunlight as possible.
Full sun conditions can increase the potency of lemon balm’s essential oils, thereby enhancing the strength of its lemony aroma and flavor. These essential oils are produced as part of the plant’s natural defense mechanism against pests, and production can ramp up in response to the stress of full sunlight.
While lemon balm is quite a hardy plant, those grown in full sun are generally more drought-resistant. The plant adapts to the intense sunlight and less frequent water availability by developing a deeper root system to seek moisture.
Lemon balm in partial shade might not be as drought-tolerant, but soil in shaded areas often retains moisture better, which can be beneficial in areas with low rainfall.
After sowing, keep the soil evenly moist but not soggy. This can be a bit of a balancing act. Too much water can lead to seed or seedling rot, while too little can dry out the seeds before they’ve had a chance to germinate.
Use a light mister to gently water the seeds so they remain in place.
The germination of lemon balm seeds usually takes around 12-14 days. During this time, make sure the seeds are exposed to light and are kept at a steady temperature of around 68°F (20°C).
Once the seedlings are a few inches tall and have developed their second set of true leaves (these will look different from the first pair that emerged), they are ready to be transplanted to their final location. If you started the seeds indoors, harden off the seedlings first by gradually exposing them to outdoor conditions over a week or so.
Dig a hole in the prepared soil, making it deep enough to accommodate the root system of the seedling. Gently remove the seedling from its container, being careful not to damage the roots. Place the seedling in the hole, ensuring that the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface. Backfill the hole with soil and firm it gently around the base of the plant.
Water the newly transplanted lemon balm thoroughly, and continue to provide it with regular water during its first growing season. This helps to establish a deep, healthy root system. After that, lemon balm will require watering less frequently.
Don’t forget to add mulch around the base of the plant. This will help to conserve moisture, suppress weeds, and regulate soil temperature.
Lemon balm isn’t particularly demanding when it comes to nutrition, but applying a mild fertilizer can give your seedlings a beneficial boost and help them establish a strong root system.
Regular watering is essential for your lemon balm, especially during dry periods. However, be careful not to over water. Give the plant a deep watering at the root level about once a week, depending on weather conditions.
As winter approaches, ensure it’s well-mulched to protect the roots from freezing temperatures.
Once established, lemon balm will die back to the ground in late fall with the first frosts, but then it will reliably return in the spring, bringing its beautiful green leaves and wonderful aroma back to your garden each year.
In milder climates, lemon balm may retain some of its leaves throughout winter, although they often turn a bit ragged and lose some of their potent aroma during this dormancy period. In colder climates, the plant will completely die back, but fear not, the roots are still alive under the soil surface, ready to produce new growth when warmer weather returns.
While lemon balm is a reliable perennial, its life span is typically around 5 years. After this time, the plant may start to become less vigorous and could benefit from being replaced. However, due to its self-seeding nature, don’t be surprised if new lemon balm plants pop up around your garden to take the place of older ones!
Harvesting lemon balm leaves is straightforward and can be done throughout the growing season. To harvest, simply clip off stems and then strip the leaves. You can take as much as you need at any one time, but avoid cutting the plant back by more than one-third, as this can stress the plant.
The best time to harvest lemon balm is in the morning, after the dew has dried but before the sun gets too hot. This is when the essential oils – which give the leaves their potent aroma and flavor – are at their peak.
Lemon balm leaves are excellent when used fresh. They can be used in a wide variety of dishes, adding a fresh, lemony flavor that is particularly wonderful in summer dishes. You can add them to salads, use them as a garnish, or even infuse them into drinks for a refreshing twist.
Unfortunately, lemon balm leaves don’t retain their flavor as well when dried. However, they can still be used throughout the year. Drying allows you to store and use the leaves long after the growing season has ended. To dry lemon balm leaves, hang bunches of stems upside down in a cool, dark, well-ventilated area. Once completely dry, strip the leaves from the stems and store them in airtight containers.
While the potency of dried leaves is slightly less than fresh due to the loss of volatile oils during the drying process, they still retain a some of their lemony flavor and can be used in the same ways as fresh leaves. They’re especially good for making herbal teas, salves, or added to soups.
As previously discussed, lemon balm spreads through underground roots. If you want to keep it under control or propagate it, simply dig up a clump, divide it, and plant the divisions in a new spot.
With the right care, lemon balm can be quite easy to grow. However, it may face problems like powdery mildew or leaf spot diseases. Regular monitoring and proper care can help avoid these issues.
Powdery Mildew: This fungal disease can appear as a white powdery coating on the leaves. It’s often caused by poor air circulation or high humidity. To prevent it, ensure your plants have enough space for air to circulate around them. If powdery mildew appears, you can treat it with a homemade solution of 1 tablespoon baking soda mixed in a gallon of water. Lightly spray this on the affected leaves and avoid insects. This increases the pH level on the leaves, killing the spores.
Leaf Spot: This is another fungal disease that can cause brown spots on the leaves. It’s often the result of water sitting on the leaves for extended periods. Prune any affected leaves. To prevent leaf spot, water at the base of the plant rather than from above, and do so in the morning so any excess water can evaporate during the day.
Aphids: These tiny insects can cause the leaves to curl and turn yellow. They also excrete a sticky substance known as honeydew, which can lead to the growth of sooty mold. Aphids can be controlled by spraying the plants with a strong stream of water to knock the insects off.
Overgrowth/Invasiveness: As we’ve discussed earlier, lemon balm can spread easily due to its rhizome system. To prevent it from taking over your garden, consider growing it in containers, or installing root barriers around the plant.
Drought Stress: While mature lemon balm plants are fairly drought-tolerant, they can still show signs of stress during prolonged dry periods, such as wilting or browning leaves. Regular watering during dry spells can help alleviate this. Mulching around the plants can also help retain soil moisture and keep the roots cool.
Frost Damage: In areas with harsh winters, lemon balm can sustain frost damage. While the plant should regrow from the roots in the spring, it can help to provide some extra protection by applying a layer of straw or other mulch around the base of the plant in late fall.
Remember, the key to dealing with any plant issue is early detection. Regularly check your lemon balm plants for signs of stress or disease, and you’ll be well equipped to keep them healthy and thriving.
Growing lemon balm from seed is an easy, rewarding endeavor that can enhance your garden and provide a bountiful harvest for your herbal apothecary.
Hello and welcome! My name is Kate and I am an herbalist and backyard farmer. If you are a beginner herbalist or just looking for information on plants, I write about gardening, natural remedies, and herbalism.