Bastard Balm; Melittis melissophyllum

What a shame it has this name, it has to be one of the most attractive of the Nettle family, I would say it rivals many of the British Orchids, in fact it superficially looks like and Orchid.

The reason for this name is that the leaves have a close resemblance to the leaves of Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). This was originally known just as Balm and has been grown in gardens for about five hundred years. It is also sometimes known as Common balm,or Balm mint.  It was a very useful herb, much used in cooking as it still is sometimes today. Adding a sprig of it to stewed rhubarb improves the flavour. Of course the bastard part refers to the fact that despite looking like Lemon Balm it is not and has hardly any smell certainly not the strong lemony smell that Lemon Balm has.

Bastard Balm  is known in France, Mélitte à feuilles de mélisse, which translates to Mélitte with leaves of Balm, obviously the similarity between the two species also confused the French.

Bastard Balm (Melittis melissophyllum) May-July

Bastard Balm (Melittis melissophyllum) May-July


This plant is in the large group of plants known as the Labiates, which means that the flower has a lip. It is quite similar to White dead nettle except that the flowers are much bigger and they have a pink coloured lip.  The plant is quite rare in GB as this is at the northern limit of its range. I have never seen it in GB but it is supposed to be locally common in Devon. In France I have seen it in several places, most often along shady roadsides. You can buy it as a garden perennial and various cultivars exist, there is an all white one B balmwhich is ‘allwright’ but I do not think it is as attractive as the wild version and you can also get one which has a more violet lip, should you wish.

It is a good plant to grow in that it is very attractive to bees, the large lip is their landing pad and the pink colour helps to direct them in. Also it has been used over the ages and in different countries as a cure for a vast range of ailments. I have read that there is some scientific evidence that it contains various active ingredients which may well be beneficial. Here is an extract detailing some of its properties.

A study conducted by Biljana Kaurinovic et al., published in “Molecules” Vol. 16 (pp 3152-67) on 14th April 2011, “Antioxidant Activities of Melittis melissophyllum” states that the essential oil from the leaves has been used for its sedative, narcotic, antifungal, antibacterial and antifungal effects and that it is a muscle relaxant and spasmolytic. The leaves contain the flavinoids,  kaempferol, apigenin and luteolin among others. Extracts from the leaves showed antioxidant activities in vitro in this study.

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The scientific name relates to Melitta which is Greek for bee and is a reference to this species being particularly favoured by honey bees. Also the Genus Melittis only has one member which is this plant, it is quite rare for a genus to only have one species in it. The genus Homo only has one member ie sapien, however in the past it did have other members like Homo erectus.

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