For 2017’s A to Z challenge, I’ll write about herbs and plants in literature. I hope to include information about their uses and our ancestors’ beliefs regarding them.
B is for Balm, Bee Balm, or Bee Plant
Written by Kerry E.B. Black
Bees find balm attractive. Hence its common name. Scientifically, though, this lemony-scented perennial is designated Melissa Officinalis. With its square stem and persistent reproduction, balm belongs in its mint family. It bears small white flowers in spring.
William Shakespeare mentioned the plant in “Anthony and Cleopatra” when the queen resorted to befriending hungry asps. “…as sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle. O Anthony!” A contemporary botanist Gerard believed “…baume makes the heart merry and joyful.”
In Beowulf, the writer describes the ideal woman as “a balm in bed to her battle-scarred husband…”
To the medieval mind, balm healed wounds and illnesses and prevented putrefaction, but Biblical references probably referred to a resin from a different plant, balsam. In the Old Testament, a caravan from Gilead bore “spicery, balm, and myrrh.” Jeremiah later asked “Is there no balm in Gilead?” In the late 1800’s, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Raven” referenced Jeremiah’s question.
The ancient Greeks most likely the resin and not the herb to preserve Hector’s body preserved during the Trojan War. This use as a fragrant way to conserve finds its way into our modern word “embalming,” or preparation of the dead.
The North American cousin to the English bee balm is found in the monarda family and is used to create Oswego teas. Its produces larger flowers which tend to be pink, purple, or red. Many Native American tribes use the plant as a medicinal aid for stomach and bronchial complaints, and early US colonists made tea from it.
Balm is sometimes called Bergamot, which is not to be confused with the French citrus of the same name. There is also a lemon balm, and the plant was believed to be sacred to Mary.
The word balm was used as a verb meaning to anoint with balm or medicine. It also means soothing and healing, and it is used metaphorically as well as literally. Because of its memorable scent, balm is applied during many religious ceremonies. It is an ingredient in some perfume, cosmetics, and shampoos, as well.