(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on April 14, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
I think I must have been old and set in my ways when I emerged from the womb. I certainly could not have been spoiled, and nobody ever told me what to like or dislike. I just knew how things were supposed to be. And lemonade was supposed to have at least one leaf of balm in it. You know how when you are little and your mom is always telling everybody your first sentence, or when you took your first step, or when you rode your first bike? Well, it seems my first word was "bom". According to my mother, the children of her friends and relatives started their first conversations with "Mama" or "Kitty" or "No." According to my mother, I said: "Bom."
Actually, the word was not the problem. The problem was that nobody knew what it meant. It happened when they gave me a drink of milk. It happened when I was given a cookie. It even happened when my mother took me outside to see the butterflies. I said, "Bom." Now I know nothing of this, since according to my crystal clear memory I spoke perfect English, well, with a slight musical mountain accent, from day one. It was my Granny Ninna who finally solved the riddle of the mystery word.
Long before I was ever wandering the Appalachian mountains with my Aunt Bett, I was aware of plants that my mother or my Ninna used for cooking. Those plants were always in the garden that was closest to the kitchen door. We had chives and sage. We had dill and could count on mint to pop up every year. Most of the time there were several different flavors of mint, and each flavor had a particular use.
Melissa officinalis, lemon balm, grows in sunny fields or along roadsides with a rich sandy loamy soil. It also grew on the hillside in my mom's back yard. It is native to Europe, and is naturalized in the United States from New England west to Ohio and Kansas, and south to Arkansas and Florida. It is a perennial with upright hairy branching stems that can reach 3 feet in height. Light green toothed leaves grow in opposite pairs at each joint. White or yellowish two lipped flowers bloom from June till about September from small loose bunches at the axils of the leaves. The leaves give off a strong lemon scent.
The hardy plant has long been used for its soothing medicinal qualities and its aromatic properties as an herb. It was a favorite of ancient beekeepers, who rubbed its fresh leaves on beehives to encourage bees to return to the hives and bring others with them. In fact, the generic name Melissa comes from the Greek word for bee. The common name also derives from the Greek: balsamon means "balsam," an oily, sweet smelling resin. It was probably the Arabs who introduced balm to medicine, as a remedy for depression and anxiety. An Arab physician in the 11th or 12 century, recorded his belief that the herb caused merriment in all people, and praised it as an antidote for melancholy.
Today the popular balm is used in a number of ways. Preparations from leaves are used to treat feverish colds and headaches, to relieve muscle cramps, to treat fevers, and to calm nervous stomachs. Herbalists still recommend balm as a tonic and as a sedative. The leaves contain a volatile oil that is used in the manufacture of perfumes and cosmetics. As a culinary herb, balm is used as flavoring in salads, soups and egg dishes. Commercially, balm is a key element in certain perfumes and cosmetics.
The story goes that when I was about 9 months old, I threw away my baby bottle and wanted to drink from a glass like the big folks did. Of course this resulted in several changes of clothes throughout the course of a day, but Ninna solved the problem by giving me a straw to drink from, and evidently I knew right away what to do with it. The problem started when she started giving me lemonade for my afternoon drink. My family drank iced tea for most evening meals, and during summer there was always a pitcher of lemonade. When I was with my grandmother for the day, she always let me help her with whatever she was doing. It seems that a sprig of lemon balm was added to every glass of iced tea and lemonade. It also seems that she gave me the task of dropping the tiny sprig in each glass. "Would you like to drop the balm in the lemonade?" she asked me. And so I did. By the time I was talking, I was already drinking more lemonade that anything else, and every drink needed a sprig of balm that I could drop in all by myself.
My Ninna finally understood. My word for any drink they gave me was "Bom". It makes perfect sense to me. I sure hope I didn't drop that sprig of balm in my milk.
Photos are from Plant Files, with thanks to Creekwalker, Ladyannne, Davidwsmith, and Weezingreens.
Complementary and Alternative Medicines, Third edition, Fetrow and Avila,PharmD, Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2004.
Magic and Medicine of Plants, The Reader's Digest, Inc, New York, 1986