Now that we have begun the process of learning about herbs and their medicinal uses, particularly in teas, we thought it would be useful to begin compiling our own list of herbs and what we know about them. It turns out that such a collection has a name and that name is Materia Medica. The term Materia Medica is Latin and literally means Medical Matter. Merriam-Webster.com defines it as:
1 : substances used in the composition of medical remedies : DRUGS, MEDICINE
2 a : a branch of medical science that deals with the sources, nature, properties, and preparation of drugs
b : a treatise on materia medica
The term in the form we are interested in, 2b above, originated from the title of a book by a Greek physician named Pedanius Dioscorides. His book was titled De Materia Medica (on medical material) and was published in the 1st century AD. Modern collections of this type are more typically called pharmacologies but the term Materia Medica is still used in herbalism, homeopathic medicine, and wildcrafting.
To start with we are looking into herbs we already grow here at Red Dragon Mini Farm. When we moved from our previous home to the current house, we brought a small clump of Lemon Balm from the old garden and planted it outside the kitchen door. This small clump has since thrived to the point where we need to work to keep it under control. This plant is a great starter herb because it is so easy to grow. Even if you think you do not have a green thumb you should give this a try. Just be careful where you plant Lemon Balm because it spreads and will take over if you don’t keep it under control.
What follows is the format we will use for each herb we study. This should make it easier for us to find the information we need in these posts later. Because the claims about what medicinal properties herbs have can be hard to verify, and is all over the place depending on your source, we will try to break the claims down into two different sections. We will try to limit the Common Medical Uses section to uses for which we think there are reputable scientific references that indicate the herb may indeed be effective for this particular use. The Purported Herbal Actions section will simply lists the full array of herbal actions attributed to the herb regardless of scientific information available.
- Common Name: Lemon Balm
- Scientific Name: Melissa Oficinalis
- Melissa is the Greek word for honey bee.
- Oficinalis is a Latin term to denote substances with medicinal uses.
- Family: Lamiaceae (Mint) pronounced lay-me-ace-ee-i
- Common Medicinal Uses: Anxiety, Upset Stomach, Stress, Sleep Aid, and a few others according to WebMD (https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-437/lemon-balm)
- Purported Herbal Actions: Nervine, Sedative, Mild antidepressant, Mild antispasmodic, Vasodilating hypotensive, Carminative, Diaphoretic, Antiviral, Antioxidant. (http://www.herbaltransitions.com/materiamedica/Melissa.htm and https://www.herbrally.com/monographs/lemon-balm/)
- Parts Used: Leaves, Flowers
- Preparations: Tea, Infusion, Strewing, Crushed Leaves (Insect Repellant)
- Description: Lemon Balm is an upright herbaceous plant with oval or heart shaped deep green leaves. The stem of Lemon Balm is square as you would expect of a plant of the Mint (Lamiaceae) family. The plant produces small flowers in late summer that are typically white but may appear light pink or yellow. The flowers attract bees very well. The mature plant reaches 1-3 feet tall depending on how much it is maintained.
Lemon Balm is originally from the Southern Europe/Eastern Mediterranean region but is now common across Europe as well as around the world including the United States. Greeks and Romans used Lemon Balm steeped in wine as a relaxation elixir. While this sounds like it might be tasty and refreshing it seems likely that the wine would do more relaxing than the Lemon Balm.
Lemon Balm leaves can also be used to polish wood furniture.
- Safety and Contraindications: Do not use if you have hypothyroidism.
- Cultivation: Lemon Balm will grow perennially in USDA zones 4-9. Can be started from seed in early Spring or plants are available at most garden centers. Plant in a sunny or partly shaded area according to most sources. In our experience this is a simple plant to grow and you are likely to have more trouble keeping it under control than you will getting it going.
Harvest leaves as needed once the plant establishes itself and cut back the plant in the fall after the leaves die back. Leaves harvested just before bloom in late summer are purported to contain the highest concentration of beneficial oils.
Bees love this plant so it is a great garden companion to attract a lot of pollinators. Lemon Balm is also reported to be a great mosquito repellent so plant it near an outdoor gathering area to deter the buggers and rub the leaves on your skin for an extra boost of repellent.