Common flower names can be quite descriptive and uplifting (think Morning Glory), but some can be downright misleading and even have a somewhat nasty connotation. Case in point: Melittis, commonly called "Bastard Balm." Some European gardeners turn their noses up at this beauty, because it's not a true orchid and so is considered an impostor. As far as Iím concerned, doing so is their loss.
've welcomed this plant into our gardens with open arms, and more American gardeners would do the same, I'm sure, if only they knew of its existence. Melittis melissophyllum(I'll decline to call it by its common name) is a European native from the UK all the way south and east to Turkey. It comes in several colors aside from those in my garden photo at right. There are also pink ones and all-white ones. The flowers appear in whorls around the stems.
Young plant in author's garden
Even the leaves are beautiful. They're medium-to-dark green, slightly puckered, slightly shiny and a bit fuzzy. Best of all--since Melittis is in the mint family-- they're aromatic, giving off a fragrance similar to woodruff. In fact, in some areas of Europe the leaves are used to flavor drinks like Maiwein or Maibowle. Others believe that the fragrance more closely resembles that of honey. Melittis is taken from Greek and means "containing honey," "sweetened," or "honey-like."
More generally, the leaves are considered an herbal remedy for a number of ills. An old English herbal text instructs: "The juice of Balm [Mellitis] glueth together greene wounds and, being applied, does close up woundes without any perill of inflammation." Even Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), a Roman author and naturalist, recommends the plant's juices in the treatment of wounds.
A tea made from Melittis is thought to promote perspiration when taken hot and thus to drive out a cold or the flu. An infusion made with cold water was often used as a headache remedy. It's prepared cold because of the belief that the volatile oils necessary to cure a headache are lost in heating.
In the London Dispensatory, a pharmaceutical guide by Anthony Todd Thomson (1778-1849), Melittis becomes somewhat of a cure-all: "The essence of balm in Canary wine every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature, and prevent baldness." John Evelyn (1620-1706) , an English writer and gardener, adds that it "powerfully chases away melancholy."
Melittis is one mint that, happily, doesn't run. It stays put and eventually forms a good-sized clump. In the wild, it self-sows, but usually not in a garden setting. If a plant does set seed, you can collect it and sow it fresh, using a good, peat-free sowing medium.
Even better, you can take basal cuttings in the spring before there has been much growth. If you wait too long the stems become hollow and the cuttings won't root. Select shoots that are no longer than three inches. Cut them as close to the base as possible, using a sharp knife or other cutting tool that makes clean cuts. Insert your cuttings in a rooting medium. No rooting hormone is needed. Keep the medium moist and warm. Gentle bottom heat will speed the rooting process. Once the cuttings are rooted, plant them in individual pots. When the roots begin to appear through the drainage hole in the pots, it's time to plant your Melittis progeny in their place of honor in your garden.
AT A GLANCE
Zones 6 (with protection) -10
Moist, fertile, well-drained
Full sun, part sun, light shade
Medium to dark green,
Leaves have woodruff fragrance, flowers are not fragrant
An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and itís still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Although our garden is private, it's listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens and is on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s. For more info: http://davesgarden.com/community/blogs/m/LarryR/. Photos that appear in my articles without credit are my own.