Melissa derives its name from the Greek word honeybee because the tiny white flowers are so attractive to bees. According to The Drunken Botanist: “The upper leaves and flowers are steamed distilled to extract this potent flavor, which goes into absinthe, vermouth, and herbal liqueurs. It is suspected to be one of the secret ingredients in both Chartreuse and Benedictine.”
As discussed in our article on St-Germain, Medieval monks and nuns used booze to preserve the healing powers of herbs. The famous Carmelite Water consists of Melissa officinalis macerated in rectified spirits with angelica, nutmeg, and other medicinal plants in a closely guarded formula that can still be purchased in German pharmacies for stomach upset.
Officinalis is a term from Medieval Latin that refers to the place where the medicines and other necessities of the monastery were kept. It denoted a plant (or sometimes animal) as having established use value as a medicine. It was Carl Linnaeus, the famous Swedish taxonomist, who first employed the binomial nomenclature that so plagues young botanists and plant enthusiasts today. Melissa officinalis, Rosmarinus officinalis, and many more plants with the epithets officinalis (for masculine and feminine nouns) or officinale (for neuter nouns) tell us that the plant was known and used by at least the middle of the 18th Century, when Linnaeus published his several editions of Systema Naturae.
As Mrs. M. Grieve writes in her 1931 Modern Herbal, Melissa officinalis is also known as sweet balm or lemon balm. “The word Balm is an abbreviation of Balsam, the chief of sweet-smelling oils. It is so called from its honeyed sweetness.” Grieve continues, “It was highly esteemed by Paracelsus, who believed it would completely revivify a man. It was formerly esteemed of great use in all complaints supposed to proceed from a disordered state of the nervous system.”
The essential oil of Melissa officinalis is quite expensive (about $60-70 for a 5ml bottle of good quality oil), so I decided to give the hydrosol a try. I ordered a 4 oz. spray bottle from PhiBee Aromatics, a family-run distiller in Arizona, who specialize in oils of the Southwest.
Melissa is native to the Mediterranean but has been naturalized in many places around the world. I messaged Clare to ask a couple questions about their hydrosols, and she got back to me right away, among other things, she mentioned that she often has a teaspoon of melissa in warm water before bed. I too put a teaspoon of Melissa hydrosol into a cup of warm water and added a shot of Bushmill’s Honey for an instant hot toddy–delicious!
Melissa officinalis is a member of the mint family (lamiaceae), which includes many of the classic culinary herbs such as basil, oregano, mint, rosemary, and like these others is wonderful in the kitchen. Yet, with so much commodification over the course of the twentieth century, a huge variety of plants used in the kitchen got compressed into a few, and many delicious flavors absconded from the typical American palate. The result is that when I encounter an herb like melissa, I am delighted to find recipes that support its culinary use, for instance this one for lemon balm pesto.
Having lost the majority of my vision later in life, I still consider myself to be a highly visual person, but I’m trying very hard to hone my aesthetic appreciation of taste and smell. The hydrosol of Melissa officinalis has a delightfully lemony tang, but not like lemons. As Suzanne Catty puts it in Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy, “more the idea of lemon in a flavor.” There is also something floral about it while it retains the herbaceous grounding of its culinary cousins. It’s a flavor that can go both sweet or savory. Catty suggests using it for steaming vegetables or fish.
Catty also tells us, “Melissa is calming to the body more than the mind but without being overly sedative. Use it for stress, anxiety, and childhood hysterics. Combine with rosemary while studying and with neroli to drink during exams.”
Melissa officinalis has long been renowned for its good effects on the nervous system and to calm anxiety, and there have been a number of scientific studies to back up the anecdotal evidence. For someone who tends to get overexcited/angry, I can appreciate. The herbalist, physician and contemporary of Shakespeare, John Gerard wrote, “It maketh the heart merry and joyful and strengthened the vitall spirits.”
With that in mind, I’ve been spritzing myself day and night with melissa. Travelling around as an artist hobo makes it necessary for me to buy stuff and use it up. As much as I’d like to have palettes of aroma rainbows to choose from at all times, I can’t be toting around dozens of bottles. So I do the very unAmerican thing of using a few items for everything, thereby using up all my stock and replenishing as necessary. Taking a cue from the ladies of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, I like my beauty products to double as potable cordials!