Is there a Melissa in your life?
If not, there probably should be.
She will bring you fragrance, honeybees, and long life.
Melissa officinalis, commonly known as lemon balm, is an herb in the mint family that makes an enduring, water thrifty ground cover for partial sun locations. In Greek, Melissa means honeybee and speaks to this insect’s powerful attraction to the eponymous herb. Many common fruit trees and vegetables require honeybees for their pollination so if you want to grow food producing plants, you might want to plant Melissa between or among them in order to increase your harvests. Pollination — the transfer of male pollen grains to female stigmas — is a prerequisite to formation of seeds and stimulates development of the botanical ovary, a female flower part, into a fruit.
The species name officinalis points to the medicinal properties of Melissa or lemon balm. Officinalis in Latin means closet. In its medicinal context, it is a special closet or apothecary where herbs are prepared for healing purposes. Up until a few hundred years ago, a knowledge of plants was a necessary component of medical practice. Doctors were nearly always gardeners, too, since they would treat many maladies by plucking or digging up fresh herbs for distillation of their essences from leaf, fruit, stem, or root. Often, different parts of the same plant would be used for different medicinal purposes. Incidentally, the Latin names for rosemary and sage, Rosmarinus officinalis and Salvia officinalis, which happen to be two of our most frequently used culinary spices, convey the fact that they, too, possess legendary curative properties.
Lemon balm might be the most intensively researched of all medicinal herbs. A cursory search of the Internet reveals dozens of peer reviewed, clinical studies that support the use of Melissa for a variety of ailments. Foremost among its uses is in the treatment of cold sores or Herpes sores. You can apply lemon balm cream to the sores or make your own medicine. Simply steep (soak) 2 to 4 teaspoons of crushed leaves in 1 cup of boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes. Let the potion cool and then dunk cotton balls in the Melissa water and dab them on the cold sores. Do this several times throughout the day. Lemon balm is also famously used to treat insect bites, indigestion, insomnia, high blood pressure, anxiety, ADHD, and agitation associated with dementia. It is available in capsules and as a tincture, which is an herbal extract dissolved in alcohol solution.
Lemon balm is strong medicine. You should consult with a physician before taking it internally and pregnant and nursing women should avoid its use. Yet drinking its tea, which you may do several times a day, may be life enhancing, to say the least. For the last 50 years of his life, which ended at the age of 116, John Hussey’s key to good health was lemon balm tea, which he mixed with honey and imbibed each morning for breakfast. To make the tea, pour boiling water over two teaspoons of fresh or one teaspoon of dried leaves, placed in your favorite mug.
Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) is a most suitable garden companion to lemon balm since they both grow best in partial sun. If lemon balm is one of the foremost medicinal plants, lemon verbena is known for having the strongest lemon scent in the entire plant kingdom. It, too, may be used in making tea but also for desserts that require a lemony ingredient. Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) also grows best in partial sun in Valley gardens. Widely used in Asian cuisine, you will want to utilize the bottom third of each leafy stalk, peeling off the outer covering to access the culinary pith within. And as long as we are on the subject of herbs for partial sun, it would be an oversight not to mention sweet bay (Laurus nobilis). Plant it for a lifetime supply of bay leaves. You can grow it either in a hedge or as a tree. I have seen it kept as low as three feet tall in a formal hedge leading up to a front door, but I have seen it grow into a twenty foot screen and into a forty foot tree as well. Be prepared to wait as the growth rate of sweet bay is rather slow.
The above lemon and bay leaf fragrances are found on plants, available in the herb section of most nurseries, whose flowers are unglamorous. Their scented leaves, however, may attract beneficial insects such as parasitic wasps that lay waste to caterpillar and other larval pests. In general, odorific volatile oils in foliage may act as a deterrent to a whole variety of garden intruders, from flea beetles (rue) to snails and slugs (rosemary).
Tip of the Week: By email, Michael Merzlikina, who gardens in North Hollywood, wondered where he could find a pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana). He is interested in growing it for its pineapple-flavored fruit but the plant has several other notable attributes as well. It has been called the most all-purpose large shrub or small tree because of its many virtues. Its flowers have creamy white petals, which are a sugary, edible treat themselves, and bright red stamens. A relative of eucalyptus and myrtle, it has rough, exfoliating bark that disappears over time, leaving a smooth surfaced bark in its stead. Its foliage, from a distance, is an attractive bluish grey. Pineapple guava makes an excellent container plant because of it slow growth rate and multiple trunks. It may also be used as a hedge, espalier, or as a stand alone accent near an entry or as a focal point of a backyard garden where space is limited. It attracts birds of all types and is generally pest free. It is drought tolerant but more lush with a good soak once a week in hot weather. Pineapple guava is widely available in the nursery trade so I would call your neighborhood nursery first. If they don’t have it in stock, they should be able to special order it for you. Pineapple guava, whose fruit is not found in supermarkets, is more cold tolerant than guava trees whose fruit we are accustomed to see. Several of the more tropical guava tree species are available at Papaya Tree Nursery (papayatreenursery.com) in Granada Hills.