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Plant writings, gardening thoughts & observations of Paul Hervey - Brookes, Award Winning Garden Designer & Plantsman.
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Wednesday, 15 July 2009

A Quick Tour of a Most Useful Plant.

I start with an apology that this may be slightly short, and as summer seems to have passed us by leaving a rather dreary, damp relation with a relentless appetite for wind in its place, so I am left struggling to keep the plants at the nursery upright today.

One of my all time favorite plants is Melissa, yes it sends it's copious off spring rioting across the garden like the hoards attacking the Bastille, but I wouldn't be without it , and a lot of it at that.

It’s native to southern Europe but was introduced to England very early and as such was for a while thought to be native to the southern counties. Melissa is highly attractive to bee’s and its from the Greek for bee that their name is derived. The common name of Lemon Balm or older, Sweet Balm comes from an abbreviation of Balsam. One of its oldest reputed properties is as a restorative and elixir of life.

Paracelsus believed it would, ‘completely revivify man’, and it was often used in treatments of the disorders of the nervous system. In the London Dispensary of 1696 it says, ‘An essence of balm, given in canary wine, every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature and prevent baldness’. John Evelyn believed it to be an aid to strengthening memory and ‘chasing away melancholy’.

Llewelyn, Prince of Glamorgan, lived until he was 108 and breakfasted on sweet balm tea, as did a gentleman called John Hussey who reportedly lived until he was 116. Carmelite water, of which balm was the chief ingredient was drunk by the Emperor Charles V daily. Carmelite water is made with a mixture of spirit of balm, lemon peel, angelica root, and nutmeg.

Gerard and Dioscorides both stated that it helps in the healing of wounds, Pliny wrote, ‘Balm, being applied, doth close up wounds without any perill or inflammation’, and this is now recognised by modern science as the balsamic oils of aromatic plants are used to make surgical dressings.

Lemon balm will propagate readily from seed and cuttings in late spring through to early summer. I tend to sow the seed ripe however as I find this gives better germination rates. In our herb garden I tend to grow the plain green leaved plant, Melissa officinalis and Melissa officinalis ‘Aurea’ as this tends to be used a lot in salads in our house as each leaf is irregularly splashed with bright drops of golden sunshine like colour. However, both the variegated form and pure golden, or yellow form, tend to suffer from the harsh mid-day sun so offer them partial shade.

Historically melissa was always grown near bee’s and not just because of there attractiveness in terms of it flowers, Gerard stated that, ‘It is profitably planted where bee’s are kept. The hives of bees being rubbed with the leaves of bawme, causeth the bees to keep together, and casueth others to come with them’. Pliny echoes this theory by stating, ’When they strayed away they do find there way home by it’.

Apart from drinking teas made with it and eating its leaves, melissa gathered in a bunch, tied and hung under a hot tap makes for a wonderfully invigorating bath. As the hot water runs over the leaves its oils are released, giving you a renewed sense of cheer and energy after a long tedious day.

Recently we started growing Melissa officinalis ssp. altissima, this wonderful balm has fast become my favorite, the leaves are slightly thicker, darker, and more pubescent. It is fast growing making a dense mound of foliage, however its best quality it the strong lime fragrance it emits either by brushing against it slightly or simply with the sun on it for a few moments. I find myself strangely addicted to its fragrance and when at the nursery, I repeatedly go over to it for another ‘hit’.

Being native to Crete I wonder if its strange lime fragrance is more evocative of the warm seas and recipes belonging to Patience Grey than just the sum of its parts. I am yet to plant one of these new found glories as I am waiting for the Autumn and a new ‘show’ border of plants at the nursery. Sean has worked fairly hard tracking down plants we are interested in trialing and we hope that the new border will be a trial bed of the new and exciting at the nursery.

Lemon Balm Bread on Foodista


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