My mom was (is) an amazing housekeeper. My sister used to joke, “There’s clean, and then there’s MOM-clean.” When I was growing up, Saturday morning (or early afternoon, since I was a late, late sleeper) was chore time. A typical list included dusting and vacuuming our rooms, cleaning our bathroom sinks and mirrors, and tackling any dust in the living room. (I say “any” because we dusted so frequently that I don’t recall ever really seeing dust – even on the ornate iron and wood undersides of the dining room table.) “Dusting” was synonymous with “removing all bric-a-brac and polishing the furniture with lemon-scented Pledge.” I didn’t even know feather dusters existed until years later while watching the opening credits of Downton Abbey.
Now that I’m older and
lazier wiser, I can rock a lamb’s wool duster, but don’t spend much time polishing – even though I have some wood pieces like an antique piano that are probably crying out for some more love. These days, I have reclaimed the distinctive scent I once associated with wood polish and restored it to its rightful owner: lemon balm.
A member of the mint family, lemon balm (Melissa officianalis) is incredibly easy to identify. Like other mints, it grows prolifically and has square stems (isn’t it cool that a whole family of plants – Lamiaceae or mints – actually have four-sided stems?!). It also has that can’t-mistake-it “Lemon Pledge” smell. If you have any doubts about whether you’re looking at lemon balm, just rub a leaf and smell it.
Medicinally, lemon balm is used for its antiviral properties to treat colds and flu and break fevers. It also calms and relaxes the nervous system, making it a valuable ally for addressing stress, mild depression, hysteria, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, restlessness and digestive problems due to nervousness. It is a popular remedy for colicky or teething children – or for whining and crying at any age, really. (Lemon Calm tea, anyone?)
If you’re a foodie, or would just like something different and delicious, try substituting lemon balm for basil whether you’re making herbed chicken or whipping up pesto. It also can be used in place of lemon peel (think shortbread cookies or a compound butter).
Just in time for warmer weather, here’s a recipe courtesy of Homespun Seasonal Living for a Raspberry Lemon Balm Shrub. Plan at least 24 hours ahead! It’s a simple recipe, but requires some sitting time. You can also get creative and use different berries (or herbs, for that matter).
2 cups raspberries
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup lemon balm, chopped
1 cup apple cider vinegar
- In a large bowl, mix together the raspberries, sugar, and lemon balm. Mash the berries with a potato masher.
- Put the bowl in the refrigerator and let stand at least 12 hours or up to 2 days. Give it a stir now and then.
- Put a double layer of cheesecloth over a fine mesh sieve (or use a jelly bag). Strain the berries through the cheesecloth. After most of the liquid has seeped through, pick up the edges of the cloth and squeeze to get as much of the liquid from the berry mixture as possible.
- The liquid should measure about 1 cup. Add an equal amount of vinegar to the berry liquid and mix well.
- Pour the finished shrub into a clean glass bottle with a tight fitting lid. Refrigerate for at least an hour for the flavors to meld and mellow before serving.
To use, place about 1/4 cup in a tall glass over ice and top with 6-8 ounces of sparkling water/club soda. If you like your refreshments a little more fortified, add a shot of brandy, whiskey, or vodka and mix well.
Note: You won’t often find lemon balm tea (dried leaves) in stores, although it is a very common base for teas. If you want to explore its medicinal or culinary uses, your best bet is to grow it, or order it dried from a reputable herb supplier like Dandelion Botanical or Starwest Botanicals.