Bee Balm

(Melissa officinalis) The leaves have a lemon fragrance, and because of this it was used as a strewing herb (Clair), with a "quasi-medicinal" effect, as one writer put it (Fletcher). The stems were woven into chaplets for ladies to wear (Genders. 1972), and even the juice was used as a furniture polish which also gave the wood a sweet perfume. Not surprisingly, balm is the symbol of pleasantry (Leyel. 1937).

Melissa means a bee, and has the reputation of keeping bees in their hive. Gerard said :" The hives of bees being rubbed with the leaves of Bawme, causeth the bees to keep together, and causeth others to come unto them", a belief still current in East Anglia, where they say that if this grows in the garden, the bees will not leave the hive (G E Evans. 1966). Wiltshire beekeepers agree; they rub the inside of the skeps with it (Wiltshire) after hiving a new swarm, to encourage them to stay.

But it is in the sphere of popular medicine that balm is important. A tale from Staffordshire tells how Ahasu-erus, the Wandering Jew, knocked at the door of a cottage, and found the occupant ill. The Jew was asked in and offered a glass of ale. In return, the patient was told to gather three balm leaves and to put them in a cup of ale, and to drink it, refilling the cup when it was empty, and adding fresh leaves every fourth day. He was cured in twelve days (M Baker. 1980). Aubrey. 1696 mentions a story that is probably the same as the Staffordshire legend, about an old man who was cured of his lameness by taking balm leaves in beer. But balm tea is the most widely used medicine, for stomach upsets or colic in Gloucestershire, but more commonly elsewhere for colds, especially if feverish, for it has the effect of promoting sweating (Conway). It makes a pleasant drink for influenza patients (A W Hatfield. 1973), and has even been recommended for bronchitis (Fluck). Fresh leaves are best, and the usual recipe is an ounce of leaves to a pint of boiling water, when lemon juice or sugar can be added when cool, if the patient prefers it (Rohde. 1936).

Oil of balm is useful for drying sores and wounds (Gordon. 1977). It is a wound plant in the Balkans -balm, the leaves of centaury and the dust of a live coal, pounded (Kemp). From now on, its uses become more and more esoteric. We are told that "... eius decoctio in aqua menstrua provocat et matrica mundificat et confortat et conceptum aduivat" (Circa Instans/ Rufinus, quoted in Thorndike), and Gerard, taking his lead from Dioscorides, maintained that the leaves "drunke in wine, or applied outwardly, are good against the stingings of venomous beasts, and the bitings of mad dogs ...". He was down-to-earth enough to prescribe a mouthwash of the decoction for toothache, but went on to claim that it is "likewise good for those that cannot take breath unlesse they hold their neckes upright"! Not only that, but it "comforts the heart, and driveth away all melancholy and sadnesse ." (it was still in use in the 20th century for nervous complaints and depression (Boland. 1979). We even hear that "essence of balm", drunk daily, will preserve youth. Llewellen, prince of Glamorgan, who

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