lemon balm // the love of our lives
In honor of what we know of as valentine’s day- I want to talk about my number one plant ally. my longest friend, my most trusted ally- lemon balm.
It was 2005. I lived in a punk house on albina avenue in north portland, oregon. we had a huge porch, two dead cars in the driveway, a yard full of bike parts and overgrown weeds, and about two house parties a week. I road an old vintage bicycle down the mississippi avenue hill most days into downtown, and took the train to portland state university, where i was an organizer for the radical student group, and studied community organizing and social sciences.
as many of us in our early twenties were, i was not happy or stable the way that hierarchal society would define. i drank a lot. i had no ability to manage my emotions. i had a huge social circle but spent endless time in my own head, asking myself questions about my existence.
our house had a frequent change of roommates, and one was a queer punk name megan, who had most of her hair buzzed off but would put on a prom dress, take a baseball bat, and threaten to fuck up the cars of the bridge-and-tunnel dudes who parked in front of our house. in her closet, she had a cardboard box with little bottles and a book on herbal medicine. she pulled a pill bottle out of the box that said ‘acidiophilis’ and threw one into her mouth ‘ug! i should be taking these’.
`i had, at the time, this belief that my feelings of doom were inescapable- my story about myself was one that i was fundamentally bad, fundamentally alone, fundamentally stuck in her ways. the outer shell had solidified like cement in the sun for someone only 22. To see this badass bitch talking about how this tablet could improve her digestion, thus improving her anxiety, made no sense to me. someone would have had to take a sledgehammer to my cement shell to wake me up, i thought.
sometime around that time, i found the lemon balm growing in our backyard, winding itself around the broken bike parts. it looked like mint, but smelled like lemons. “it’s lemon balm” I remember Megan saying. “You can make a tea of it and it will help with your anxiety.”
Fast forward eleven years: it’s 2016. I live in Eureka, California, in an old victorian house in the middle of town with a big back yard, it’s summer, and I’m working as a gardener & doing research for my master’s degree in Anthropology. I’m between jobs in the healthcare system, struggling hard with my depression, no longer a concrete wall but an open nerve to the world, struggling to remain present with my trauma. but the first plant I grew was the one I knew best- a lemon balm bush, right under my bedroom window.
In the late summer it’s growing wild, and I fill a mason jar with it’s fresh leaves, covering it with the cheapest vodka from the grocery outlet. my garden has plants that sprouted from seeds I got at the seed exchange, from starts i bought at the co-op. i don’t know what all the medicinal herbs i’m growing do. mugwort grew tall in my yard before i knew how to worship her magic. i became an herbalist through being a gardener, following in my gardener father’s footsteps, from a long line of Italians who worked with the land. For this I feel more like a plant witch and less like an herbalist.
In the fall I bottled up the lemon balm tincture- (no glycerite or honey- i did not yet know that i could sweeten the medicine), hand drew the labels & put them in my backpack to bring to the farmers market, where I handed them out to friends. “do you have anxiety? depression? sleeplessness? digestive issues? viral infections? lemon balm can help you!”
this was the beginning of my work, professionally, as a plant witch- although at the time I never saw this happening. I was knee deep in extensive community research on community sexual health, accessibility, and spanish-speaking populations, working at the county in hiv prevention. i believed that this was my road forward. suddenly, my plant witch roots and skills came to the forefront, and as the world collapsed around me, my medicine making skills brought my forward. i have lemon balm to thank for this.