You can learn how to grow lemon balm in a few minutes. Lemon balm is a perennial herb that grows best in cool weather. It has lemon-scented, mint-like leaves that are often used to make refreshing, lemony hot and cold drinks. The leaves also add a tart lemony flavor to green and fruit salads as well as meats and poultry.
- Get to Know Lemon Balm
- How to Plant Lemon Balm
- How to Grow Lemon Balm
- Troubleshooting Lemon Balm
- How to Harvest Lemon Balm
- Lemon Balm in the Kitchen
- Preserving and Storing Lemon Balm
- Propagating Lemon Balm
- Lemon Balm Varieties to Grow
- How to Grow, Harvest and Use Lemon Balm
- How to Grow Lemon Balm
- How to Harvest Lemon Balm
- How to Dry & Store Lemon Balm
- How to Use Lemon Balm
- 6 Wonderful Lemon Balm Benefits and Uses
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Get to Know Lemon Balm
- Botanical name and family: Melissa officinalis (Lamiaceae—mint family)
- Europe and Asia
- Type of plant: Lemon balm is a herbaceous upright perennial.
- Growing season: Lemon balm grows best in cool weather. In freezing temperatures, it will die back to the ground then regrow from the roots in spring.
- Growing zones: Zones 4 to 9; lemon balm does not like hot, humid climates.
- Hardiness: Lemon balm is cold hardy to -20°F; it only moderately tolerates heat.
- Plant form and size: Lemon balm grows to 12 to 24 inches tall and wide; it grows in clumps of branched stems with loose terminal clusters of small white to creamy yellow flowers at the top. Lemon balm may be mistaken for mint at first glance.
- Flowers: Small white flowers are borne in tight clusters at the axles along the length of the stems.
- Bloom time: Lemon balm blooms throughout the summer and into fall.
- Leaves: Lemon balm has lemon-scented, oval, toothed leaves that are heavily veined or quilted from 2 to 3 inches long arranged opposite one another on four-sided stems. Leave are coarsely toothed with a bristly surface.
How to Plant Lemon Balm
- Best location: Plant lemon balm in full sun; it will tolerate shade.
- Soil preparation: Grow lemon balm in well-drained, sandy loam. However, lemon balm will grow in almost any soil but not very wet soil. It prefers a soil pH of 6.7 to 7.3.
- Seed starting indoors: Sow seeds indoors about 2 months before transplanting lemon balm into the garden after the last spring frost. Seeds require light to germinate so do not cover them or cover them only lightly with fine soil. Germination will come in about 14 days.
- Transplanting to the garden: Set transplants in the garden after the last spring frost.
- Outdoor planting time: Sow lemon balm in spring about the average date of the last frost. Seeds can be slow to germinate. Also, sow seed in late summer or fall. Root divisions can be planted at any time during the growing season but will become established quicker in cool weather. Cuttings from new growth can be started in moist sand.
- Planting depth: Sow lemon balm seed ¼ inch deep; very light cover is all lemon balm needs for germination. Keep the seedbed moist until seed germinates.
- Spacing: Thin successful seedlings to 8 inches apart and later thin plants to 18 inches apart. Space rows 18 to 24 inches apart.
- How much to plant: Grow 4 lemon balm plants for cooking; grow 6 to 12 plants for tea and preserving.
- Companion planting: Grow lemon balm with broccoli, cauliflower, and other cabbage family plants. The fragrance of lemon balm helps deter insects that attack cabbage family crops and also masks the smell of cabbage. Plant lemon balm with hollyhocks, angelica, and nasturtiums. Lemon balm attracts honeybees; plant it near fruit trees to aid pollination.
How to Grow Lemon Balm
- Watering: Lemon balm requires regular, even watering. It grows best in slightly moist soil. Once established lemon balm tolerates drought.
- Feeding: Lemon balm does not require extra feeding; side-dress plants with aged compost during the growing season.
- Care: Lemon balm spreads by underground roots. To keep lemon balm from becoming invasive, set it in the garden in a bottomless container that will keep the roots in place. Remove unwanted plants before they become established. Cut plants back by half after flowering to encourage a second crop of leaves and a compact form. Deadhead plants to prevent self-sowing.
- Container growing: Lemon balm can be container grown as an annual. Choose a container 6 to 8 inches deep and wide. Over-winter lemon balm in a protected area such as an unheated garage or patio.
- Winter growing: Cut back lemon balm in fall leaving just 2 inches of stem. The plant may freeze back to the ground in winter but will re-grow from underground roots and renew itself in spring.
Troubleshooting Lemon Balm
- Pests: Lemon balm has no serious pest problems.
- Diseases: Lemon balm is susceptible to verticillium wilt, mint rust, and powdery mildew. To prevent these fungal diseases, keep plants sufficiently spaced to allow for good air circulation. Spray plants with compost tea during the season; compost tea is a natural fungicide.
How to Harvest Lemon Balm
- When to harvest: Pinch off and use leaves and sprigs as needed during the growing season. Older, lower leaves have the strongest aroma. Leaves for drying are best harvested before the plant flowers in summer, usually about the time lower leaves begin to yellow. At midseason or in autumn, cut back the plant back by half; it will regrow new leaves in 4 weeks or so.
- How to harvest: Snip leaves and sprigs with a garden pruner. The leaves bruise easily so handle them with care.
Lemon Balm in the Kitchen
- Flavor and aroma: Lemon balm has a strong scent of lemon with a touch of mint.
- Leaves: Use freshly chopped leaves sprinkled lightly on cooked vegetables, green salads, chicken salads, fruit salads for a lemony flavor. Serve with corn, broccoli, asparagus, lamb, shellfish, olives, and beans. Add chopped leaves to salad dressing, dips, and soft cheeses for spreads. Sprinkle chopped leaves over vanilla ice cream.
- Cooking: Use lemon balm leaves fresh in cooking. Add lemon balm at the end of cooking to impart the best flavor.
- Teas: Fresh or dry leaves make a refreshing, mildly lemony tea. Also, add leaves to lemonade. Infusion from fresh or dried leaves has a cool, citrus taste that calms upset stomachs.
- Culinary complements: Combine lemon balm with dill, parsley, or lovage to add a subtle citrus flavor to sauces
Preserving and Storing Lemon Balm
- Drying: Leaves can be stripped from stems and dried on trays in a warm shady place. Harvest nearly mature leaves for drying. Leaves must be dried quickly within two days of harvest or they will turn black. Leaves must be dried at 90°F to retain their green color. Dried leaves will not be as flavorful as fresh leaves.
- Freezing: Fresh leaves can be frozen.
- Storing: Dried leaves can be stored in an airtight container for about 6 months.
Propagating Lemon Balm
- Seed: Lemon balm can be grown from seed that has been stratified (chilled or frozen) for at least 7 days; once stratified germination will happen in about 14 days. Lemon balm will self-sow in place. You can also sow seeds in place in fall for spring plants.
- Cuttings: Root lemon balm cuttings in late spring or early summer; dip cut ends in a rooting hormone and plant stems in organic potting soil.
- Division: Root divisions can be planted at any time during the growing season.
- Layering: Lemon balm will root at nodes along stems when covered with soil; layer plants in spring or fall.
Lemon Balm Varieties to Grow
- ‘Aurea’ is a variegated variety.
- ‘All Gold’ has completely golden foliage with pale lavender flowers.
Also of interest:
How to Start a Herb Garden
Growing Herbs for Cooking
How to Grow Mint
How to Grow Thyme
How to Grow Oregano
Quick Guide to Growing Lemon Balm
- Plant lemon balm during the warm weather of late spring, once all chances of frost have passed.
- Space lemon balm 20 to 24 inches apart in an area with partial shade and fertile, well-drained soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7.0.
- Start the growing season off right by mixing several inches of aged compost or other rich organic matter into your native soil.
- Check soil moisture every few days and water when the top inch becomes dry.
- Maximize leaf production by regularly feeding with water-soluble plant food.
- Harvest lemon balm leaves anytime once your plant reaches 6 to 8 inches tall; avoid harvesting more than one-third of the plant at a time.
Soil, Planting, and Care
Growing lemon balm is a warm weather activity. Be sure to start with young lemon balm plants from Bonnie Plants®, which has been helping home gardeners succeed for over 100 years. After all danger of frost has past, set lemon balm plants 20 to 24 inches apart in rich, well-draining soil where it will receive some shade during the day. Improve your existing soil’s nutrition content and drainage by mixing in a few inches of Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics™ All Purpose In-Ground Soil with the top layer. Or, fill containers with Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics™ All Purpose Container Mix. Both are enriched with aged compost and provide a strong nutritional start for your plants.
Lemon balm will remain green during mild winters, such as those in zones 9 and 10. This plant responds well to cutting, growing back twice as thick. Whenever your plant is looking tired due to drought, hail, insects, or other stress, just cut it back and let it rejuvenate itself with fresh, new growth.
While rich, fertile soil is a great foundation for growing lots of lemon balm, you’ll have even more success if you feed regularly with a water soluble fertilizer like Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics™ All Purpose Plant Nutrition at the rate recommended on the label, or work plenty of organic nutrients from compost, blood meal, or cottonseed meal into the soil.
How to Grow, Harvest and Use Lemon Balm
By Jill Henderson
I always get excited when I talk about herbs, especially when I talk about medicinal culinary herbs like lemon balm. Lemon balm’s simplicity, beauty, flavor, ease of care, and exceptional medicinal properties make it one of my favorites.
I particularly like the way lemon balm attracts beneficial insects and butterflies to my garden, and occasionally even the hummingbirds find it intriguing.
I am also partial to lemon balm tea, especially on a cold winter night, when its deep, earthy, lemony flavor brings back a touch of summer sunshine.
Sometimes referred to as Melissa or Sweet Melissa, Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is a member of the Lamiaceae, or mint family, of plants. Like other mint family members, lemon balm has scalloped, oval- to heart-shaped leaves that grow opposite one another on square (four-sided) stems. Its leaves are bright green on top and whitish below.
Lemon balm is a great herb to share with kids because the leaves are wonderfully fuzzy to touch, and they leave a trace of lemon scent on the fingers. Most people don’t stop to look at the flowers of lemon balm because they are very small. Up close, the tiny white to pale pink two-lipped flowers form whorled spikes that are quite pretty.
Harvesting the long stems of lemon balm.
Lemon balm is one of those herbs that isn’t thought of all that much beyond tea. But in reality, this sometimes rambling and invasive “mint” has played a crucial role in the health and well-being of humans and animals alike for thousands of years. It’s easy to grow, looks nice, and smells and tastes even better! If you have a little room to spare in the yard or garden, you might want to give this little herbal gem a try.
How to Grow Lemon Balm
Depending on the type of soil you want to build and amount of sunlight, this spreading perennial herb can reach heights of 1 to 3 feet with an equal spread. Like mint, lemon balm is quite hardy and can be overwintered as far north as hardiness zones 4 and 5.
It is always a good idea to mulch plants year-round, but winter mulch is of the utmost importance. Mulch helps keep the ground frozen in areas where the ground freezes and keeps it warmer in areas where it doesn’t. Mulch also helps prevent the plant from being heaved out of the ground in times of repeated freeze and thaw cycles. Lemon balm will grow almost anywhere in the garden and isn’t particularly fussy about the quality of soil it grows in.
Klaas Martens: Soil, Testing & Fertility from the 2009 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show. Listen in as the popular agronomist and successful organic farmer teaches his methods for managing soil testing, data and inputs.
In general, your plant will be larger and more productive when grown in full sun and fertile, loamy soil. In regions with very hot or dry summers, lemon balm appreciates a bit of afternoon shade and soils that retain moisture. If you plant lemon balm in soil that is both very fertile and loamy, it will spread like wildfire throughout your garden. We have a lot of red clay soil here in the Ozarks, and I find that my lemon balm not only grows well, but that it also stays relatively close to where I plant it. And while lemon balm prefers moist soil, healthy and mature plants easily endure extended periods of heat and drought.
Like most mint family members, lemon balm is easily started from seed. For outdoor culture, seed can be sown either in mid-spring after all danger of frost has passed or in early fall to late winter.
While both are good, I personally feel that winter sowing has advantages over spring sowing. Winter-sown seeds have a feel for the seasons and germinate only when the weather is optimal. They also have higher germination rates, and their seedlings are hardier and grow more vigorously than those sown indoors. But best of all, winter-sown seeds don’t take up any room in the house or require artificial heat or light.
To start lemon balm indoors, sow seeds six to eight weeks before the last frost. Start with small pots filled with a light seed-starting mix and barely cover.
I prefer to sprinkle seeds on the surface of the soil and then lightly scratch them in before watering. Seeds take seven to fourteen days to germinate at 70°F, but longer if indoor temperatures are cooler.
Once seedlings have their second set of true leaves, either thin them to one or two per pot or repot individual seedlings into larger containers. After all danger of frost has passed, seedlings should be set in the garden 12 to 18 inches apart.
Although sowing seed has its advantages, there is one crucial drawback that most gardeners are not aware of. As is the case with many herbs, each lemon balm plant that is grown from seed will be slightly different. They will generally look alike, but they may not smell or taste the same. This is why I highly recommend starting lemon balm from established plants, be it rooted stem cuttings, root divisions, or seedlings from a nursery. This way, you can smell and taste the leaves before investing a lot of time and money into a plant that has an inferior smell and taste.
Be sure to leave ample space between lemon balm and nearby plants, as it has a penchant for sprawling and crawling.
To keep plants tidy and within bounds, pinch or cut the stem tips back regularly throughout the growing season. And to prevent scraggly or spindly growth, divide mature plants every three to five years.
How to Harvest Lemon Balm
Many gardeners like the idea of planting an herb garden, but aren’t always sure what to do with the herbs once they are mature. You can harvest handfuls of lemon balm leaves for fresh use almost any time during the growing season. For a large harvest of leaves that will be dried for tea or medicinal use, it is preferable to wait until the plant begins to put on flower buds or just as the flowers begin to open. This is when the volatile oils in the leaves are at their greatest concentration.
When you are ready, cut each stem just above a pair of leaves using a very sharp pair of scissors or pruning shears. You can cut the plant down to within six to eight inches of the soil. A good rule of thumb is to remove no more than two-thirds of the vegetative growth at any one time. Finish the job by pruning stray stems and shaping so the plant looks tidy, and then water it deeply.
A second harvest may be possible in the fall if the plant is healthy and has regenerated many new leaves, but the first harvest is always the sweetest and most fragrant.
How to Dry & Store Lemon Balm
Once you have your basket full of cut stems, you will need to process them for drying. There are many ways to dry herbs, all of which are a bit tedious, depending on where you live and how you approach it. Drying is the only way to preserve the quality and flavor of lemon balm for long-term storage, though.
Over the years, my husband, Dean, and I tried many methods of drying herbs until we finally found one that suited our schedule and our taste buds.
The author dries lemon balm in stainless steel metal baking pans.
We start by stripping the leaves from the stems. Yes, this can be a bit monotonous, but trust me: it saves a lot of time later on and your leaves don’t get crushed in the process.
To strips the leaves quickly (relatively speaking) we ‘zip’ the leaves off with our fingers. To do this, start by holding the tip (top) of the stem firmly between your left thumb, index, and ring fingers. With the same three fingers of your right hand, pull firmly downwards along the stem.
This zipping technique quickly pulls off all leaves and branching stems in one fell swoop. Repeat the ‘zipping’ with all stems until all leaves have been removed.
At this juncture, tradition has it that you should use a dehydrator to dry your herbs, or that you should spread the leaves on screens or hang them in bunches and dry them in a cool dark place. The problem I have with these methods are: a) I don’t have a dehydrator, nor do I want one; b) a dehydrator can’t possibly hold the quantity of leaves we process each year; and c) my climate is too humid to properly dry leaves in a “cool dark place.”
When I lived in the drier areas of the north and northwest United States, drying herbs was a snap, even in the shade. Here in Missouri, though, summers can be unbelievably humid. Because of this, I have come to rely on a very unconventional drying method.
After some disappointing attempts at drying basil and sage (two of the trickiest herbs to dry properly) the traditional way, my husband suggested we try a different approach. He had noticed how some of the leaves from the “zipping” process that we had left on the concrete walkway dried up extremely quickly. He proposed that the rest of our herbs would dry there just as quickly.
After so many trials and mediocre results, I was game for anything. We laid our stripped leaves in a single layer on shiny stainless steel baking pans, which we then set on the concrete walk in the sun. Most often the herbs dried in one day — in some cases within hours. In every batch, the herbs came out vibrantly green and extremely fragrant.
Let it be known that I fully understand that the standard rule for drying herbs is to never (ever) dry them in the sun. The theory is that prolonged exposure to high heat and bright light can evaporate the delicate volatile oils that make herbs flavorful and medicinal. I hated to ignore the herbalist in my head, but the method worked so beautifully that, 15 years later, I can’t even imagine doing it any other way.
In order to clear my conscience, I placed two different thermometers in the pan to see how hot the herbs — and the pan — actually got during the course of the day. The pans were placed in full sun on a 92°F (33°C) day and only reached 130°F (54°C), which is absolutely acceptable in terms of drying temperatures for herbs.
To retain maximum medicinal value in the leaves, the temperature should have been a little lower, but that can be easily achieved by choosing a cooler day or by placing the pan in dappled shade. If you decide to try this method, it is very important to monitor the herbs in the pan just as you would if you had a cake in the oven. Use a meat thermometer to gauge the temperature, stir the herbs often, move them into the shade when they start to get crisp, and always allow the herbs to cool completely before storing.
When the leaves crumble to pieces when pressed, they are ready to store in airtight jars or plastic bags in a cool, dark place. Keep in mind that whole herbs retain their flavor and medicinal properties longer than those that are crushed or ground.
How to Use Lemon Balm
The smell and taste of common lemon balm is not as sharp or crisp as a lemon, but is rich, deep, and woody, especially when dried. Newer cultivars have an improved lemony aroma. Lemon balm is wonderful when used to make hot or cold tea, and its flavor blends very well with black tea and other herbs such as apple mint, lemon verbena, anise, fennel, and fenugreek. The leaves and flowers make unique, flavorful jelly or herbed vinegar. They can also be added to creamy dressings, dips, and spreads. Add young leaves to fruit punch and green or fruit salads.
One of my favorite things to make with lemon balm is shortbread or sugar cookies. Simply pick out your favorite generic recipe and add to it a handful of fresh, chopped lemon balm leaves and a few toasted nuts.
Although there are many great ways to use lemon balm in the kitchen, the real magic of this sometimes-beguiled herb lies in its medicinal properties. And make no mistake about it: lemon balm is a powerful and useful medicinal.
To begin with, lemon balm is a super-strong anti-inflammatory and gentle sedative that can help relieve mild insomnia, depression, and tension. Herbalists also recommend it to treat infection and inflammation of the upper respiratory tract and to reduce symptoms of cold and flu. It is especially effective at soothing indigestion, heartburn, and stomachaches. When taken orally, lemon balm has similar actions to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, without these drugs’ dangerous long-term side effects.
Lemon balm also contains constituents that fight all kinds of viral infections, and it is one of the very best treatments I have ever found for the treatment of cold sores. In fact, scientific studies have proven that internal and topical application of lemon balm reduces the severity, duration, pain, and recurrence of cold sores, mouth ulcers, and other viral eruptions like shingles, which are all caused by the herpes virus.
For many years, I was plagued by repeated outbreaks of large, painful cold sores on my lips and around my mouth. On two occasions, cold sores on my mouth were infected by Streptococcus bacteria and resulted in impetigo, a very serious and contagious skin infection.
By applying a strong infusion of lemon balm to the affected area at the earliest onset of symptoms, and by consuming up to three cups of lemon balm tea every day for the duration of the outbreak, I was able to rid myself of both the cold sores and the severe case of impetigo. Within a few months of using lemon balm to treat recurring outbreaks, the herpes simplex virus literally went dormant. And thanks to lemon balm, I have had no more than a half dozen cold sores in over 15 years. The few that I did get were relatively small and short-lived.
In addition to reducing the severity of cold sores, lemon balm also appears to speed healing and to reduce or inhibit secondary infections. Externally, it can be used to treat rashes, hives, insect bites, swelling, and minor wounds. Researchers are reportedly even using extracts of lemon balm to try to treat mild Alzheimer’s disease.
Although it has been suggested that lemon balm may support normal function of the thyroid gland, anyone with hypothyroidism (low thyroid function), goiter, Hashimoto’s disease, or those taking any kind of thyroid hormone such as anti-cholinergics or cholinergics should not take lemon balm in medicinal doses without first consulting a professional.
Lemon balm is an exceptionally attractive herb that lights up any garden path. And while the flowers are not excessively showy and can at times give the plant a leggy or ragged appearance, they attract many beneficial insects to the garden. Lemon balm is not only a fragrant and flavorful culinary herb, but also a powerful medicinal that deserves a spot in every garden. If nothing else, the simple beauty of its soft, sculpted leaves and pleasant smell will do much to cheer up any gardener.
This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is currently the editor of Show Me Oz, a blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants, and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country, and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.
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Description: This perennial herbaceous plant is 1-3′ tall, branching occasionally to frequently with ascending to erect leafy stems. The stems are light green, 4-angled, single-furrowed along their sides, and glabrous to finely hairy. Pairs of spreading opposite leaves occur along these stems, becoming gradually smaller as they ascend. The leaves are up to 3½” (9 cm.) long and 2″ (5 cm.) across, ovate in shape, and either crenate or crenate-serrate along their margins. The tips of leaves are blunt, while their bases are broadly wedge-shaped to rounded. The upper leaf surface is medium green and glabrous to finely short-hairy, while the lower leaf surface is pale green and glabrous to finely hairy along the veins. The upper leaf surface is wrinkled by indentations along the primary, secondary, and tertiary veins. The petioles are up to 1¼” (3 cm.) long, light green, and finely hairy. The foliage usually has a mild lemon fragrance and rather bland taste, although this can vary with the cultivar.
Clusters of 2-10 flowers develop from the axils of the upper leaves on short pedicels that are 1-5 mm. in length; there are no terminal clusters of flowers. Individual flowers are 8-13 mm. in length with corollas that are longer than their calyces. Each flower has a white corolla, a light green calyx with 5 teeth, 4 stamens, and a 4-parted ovary with single style that is cleft toward its tip. Each corolla is tubular-campanulate (tubular and bell-shaped), dividing into a hood-like upper lip and a 3-lobed lower lip. The calyx is angular and trumpet-shaped with 3 smaller upper teeth and 2 larger lower teeth; it is finely hairy along its veins and 4-8 mm. in length. The blooming period occurs from late spring to late summer, lasting 1½-3 months. Usually, only a few flowers are in bloom at the same time on individual plants. Afterwards, the flowers are replaced by small nutlets (4 nutlets per flower) that are lanceoloid-ellipsoid and smooth. The root system is fibrous and rhizomatous.
Cultivation: The preference is full to partial sun, moist to mesic conditions, and fertile soil containing loam. This plant is easy to cultivate once it becomes established.
Range & Habitat: Lemon Balm rarely naturalizes in Illinois (see Distribution Map), where it is not native. This plant was introduced from Europe into North America as a culinary and medicinal herb. It is still cultivated in gardens and sometimes it is grown commercially. Escaped plants are typically found in such habitats as thickets, fence rows, abandoned homesites, vacant lots, areas along roadsides, banks of ponds, floodplain areas along drainage canals, and waste areas. Areas with a history of disturbance are preferred. Lemon Balm is especially likely to naturalize in urban and suburban areas, as this is where most cultivated plants occur.
Faunal Associations: Little Information about floral-faunal relationships for this plant is available for North America. The flowers are used by bees as a source of nectar.
Photographic Location: Floodplain area of a drainage canal in Champaign, Illinois.
Comments: Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is a fairly typical example of plants in the Mint family. Its foliage usually has a mild lemon fragrance, otherwise this plant is rather similar to several other species in the Mint family with small whitish flowers. Unlike some of these species, such as Nepeta cataria (Catnip) and Ocimum basilicum (Basil), Lemon Balm lacks terminal clusters of flowers. Unlike Chaiturus marrubiastrum and most Lycopus spp. (Bugleweeds), it also has broad-based leaves that are less than 3 times as long as they are across. Lemon Balm can be distinguished from the similar Marrubium vulgare (Common Horehound) by the presence of 5 teeth on its calyces, while the latter species has calyces with 10 teeth. According to Wikipedia, Lemon Balm has been used traditionally to calm nervous tension, insomnia, and other conditions; apparently there is some scientific evidence that it really does have some anti-anxiety and sedative effects. In addition, Lemon Balm has been investigated in the medical community as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and for cold sores of the herpes simplex virus. The leaves are used as an ingredient in herbal teas and salads, where they may have beneficial anti-oxidant effects. Many different cultivars of Lemon Balm are now available that vary in the fragrance of their foliage and other characteristics.
6 Wonderful Lemon Balm Benefits and Uses
Lemon balm, also known as Melissa Officinalis, is a wonderfully lemon-scented plant that comes from the mint family. It may look plain and unassuming in the garden but gives off a fresh, lemon fragrance whenever anything brushes its leaves.
Bees particularly love lemon balm and like other members of the mint family, it will happily take over the whole garden if not kept in check.
Lemon balm is also much loved by herbalists and has many benefits and uses in herbal medicine. It’s pleasant flavor also makes it easy to enjoy and good tasting to children.
Here is more about this lovely plant.
Lemon balm is native to Europe, North Africa, and West Asia, but it is now grown across the world, including in many gardens.
Once started in the garden, lemon balm can grow quite rapidly and spread. Unlike other members of the mint family which spread mostly by runners, lemon balm spreads itself by seed.
It can be cut back just as it starts to flower to prevent this or allowed to flower (for the benefit of bees) and cut back as soon as the flowers start to fade and before the seeds are set.
Whether lemon balm is grown in your backyard or bought as a dried herb, here are some of the key benefits of lemon balm and uses for it.
Stress Relief and Nervous System Support
Lemon balm is a particularly good herb for the nervous system and has many benefits for relieving stress.
According to herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, it is lemon balm’s rich volatile oils, specifically citral and citronellal, that are responsible for having such a calming effect on the nervous system. (Gladstar. Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, pg. 157)
A cup of lemon balm tea can work wonders for feelings of stress and tension as well as rejuvenate the nervous system. (1)
A small study done in 2004 found that lemon balm reduced the negative mood effects of induced stress. Participants who received a dose of lemon balm reported “significantly increased self-ratings of calmness” as compare to the placebo. (2)
Helps with Sleep and Can Ease Insomnia
Lemon balm can also function as a mild sedative and has benefits for restlessness and insomnia, especially when combined with other herbs for sleep.
While helpful for adults as well, lemon balm used in a tea or as glycerite (non-alcoholic) tincture can be especially helpful for restlessness and sleep problems in children. (1) Although research is still ongoing, a study done using a lemon balm-valerian preparation showed great symptom improvement in children suffering from sleep disorders. (3)
To aid sleep, Gladstar recommends a cup of lemon balm and chamomile tea or a tea made of lemon balm, passionflower, and a few lavender buds taken an hour or two before bedtime. (Gladstar, pg. 158)
Relieves Anxiety and Depression
Lemon balm may also be very effective at relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression. Due to its calming effects on the nervous system, lemon balm can especially be helpful for calming the excitability and nervousness that can come with anxiety.
A 2014 study showed that lemon balm had a positive effect on mood, including reduced anxiety levels, in healthy young adults. (4)
Lemon balm also makes it towards the top of the list of herbs to treat depression, and Gladstar recommends it as an effective remedy for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). (Gladstar, pg. 158) It can be even more effective when combined with other herbs like St. John’s Wort or hawthorn.
Like other mint family members, lemon balm also has a positive effect on the digestive system and can aid both indigestion and nausea. (5)
The same volatile oils that calm the nervous system also have an antispasmodic effect on the digestive system. Lemon balm and chamomile tea can be an especially effective remedy for stomach upset and indigestion because both herbs have calming and antispasmodic properties.
A cup of lemon balm tea taken at the first symptoms of nausea can also be effective at calming the stomach and digestive tract.
Brain Tonic and Headache Relief
Lemon balm can also have a positive effect on the brain, even improving cognitive function, which is your brain’s ability to perform cognitive tasks.
The 2014 study that indicated improved mood in participants who took lemon balm also indicated improved cognitive function at activities involving memory, multitasking, and mental math, among others. (4)
Lemon balm can also be effective at relieving headaches, especially those associated with stress and tension.
Strong Antiviral Properties
Lemon balm is also rich in something called polyphenols, which gives it strong antiviral properties. (Gladstar, pg. 158)
Taking lemon balm as a tea or tincture may be helpful for recovery from viral infections like a cold, the flu, and even shingles. Its antiviral properties and digestive soothing properties combine to also make it useful for stomach viruses.
Lemon balm tea taken with honey can help to soothe a sore throat, or the herb can consumed on a regular basis to strengthen the body’s natural defenses against viruses.
Although lemon balm is a very safe herb overall and suitable also for children, it is considered a thyroid inhibitor.
If you have hypothyroidism or low thyroid activity, be sure to consult a qualified health practitioner before using, and you may wish to avoid using lemon balm altogether.
Easy Ways to Use Lemon Balm
Now that you know the many benefits of lemon balm, here are some easy uses for it.
The easiest way to consume lemon balm is to use the leaves to make a tea. Add 1 tablespoon of the dried leaves per cup of boiling water and let steep 15-20 minutes before drinking.
For Headaches: A cup of lemon balm tea can help relieve a headache, but for stronger action, try a tea like the Headache Releaf tea that combines lemon balm with other powerful herbs.
For Sleep/Insomnia: Try a cup of plain lemon balm tea or one made with equal parts of lemon balm leaf and chamomile flowers 1-2 hours before bedtime. For a pre-made sleep blend, try the Sweet Slumber tea that has chamomile, lemon balm, passionflower, and other soothing herbs.
For Immune Health: To keep your immune system strong against viruses, consider drinking a cup of lemon balm tea every day. Or take it with other immune boosting herbs in the ImmuniTea blend.
Could You Use Some Lemon Balm Benefits?
There is a lot to love about lemon balm as an herb and the benefits it can have for your health. With its pleasant, lemony flavor and stress-relieving effects, this is one herb you should consider adding to your daily health routine!
I’m helping to revive and replant the ethnobotanical garden at the University of Kent. One of our tasks is to revamp the garden’s plant catalogue to make it interactive, as well as more useful for a range of disciplines.
One of the plants in the catalogue – lemon balm – stands outs as an ideal plant for people to engage with and learn about. One plant of lemon balm in a garden quickly turns into many, as it self-seeds readily in flowerbeds or even gaps between paving. It is a common but underappreciated garden plant, possibly because it is easy to grow – it is tolerant of a range of conditions, including drought, and isn’t affected by many pests and diseases.
Lemon balm has a scientific name – Melissa officinalis – that came to life with bees. Blooming plants attract scores of bees, which feed on the tiny white flowers, and the genus name Melissa is derived from the Greek word for bee. It has square stems and leaves in pairs, which are characteristic of the Lamiaceae (mint) plant family. These are easy features to look for without any equipment, making it a simple plant for botanical beginners to get to grips with. Lemon balm exudes a strong lemon scent when the leaves and stems are crushed, and this is a readily detectable feature for initiating discussion of phytochemistry: investigating compounds made by plants, what their function is in plants, and how they can be useful to people. Best of all, even a small scrap of stalk will readily root in a glass of water, making it a plant for garden visitors to take home and grow on a windowsill or in their own garden.
Lemon balm produces an essential oil that is one of the most expensive to buy; production costs are high because yields are low. Although the lemon scent can be replicated using cheaper citrus and lemongrass essential oils, pure lemon balm essential oil is valued for its properties in aromatherapy where it is considered to be uplifting and calming, and in skincare as an anti-inflammatory. Lemon balm is one of those plants with a long history of medicinal use. Small laboratory trials report antiviral, antioxidant and calmative properties. But the results are not good enough to turn it into a prescribed medication. Some folk remedies may never be wonder drugs. Perhaps lemon balm is best appreciated on a sunny morning as a cup of tea in hand while watching and listening to bees on its flowers, or at dusk with a few stems crushed underfoot to keep mosquitos at bay and a glass of lemon balm wine. Below, courtesy of Pauline Pearce from the National Guild of Wine and Beer Judges, who has won many awards with this particular recipe.
Lemon balm wine (ingredients for 1 gallon)
2 quarts lemon balm
2 large oranges large (juice and rind)
1 lemon (juice and rind)
1 tsp nutrient
1 tsp tartaric
1 tsp pectic enzyme
Gervin or any general purpose wine yeast
Strip the leaves from the stalks (discard the stalks) then wash leaves in cold water. Drain and put into a clean container and pour over 4 pints of boiling water, add one Campden tablet, stir, cover and leave for 48 hours.
Strain the liquor from the leaves (discard theleaves) into a sterilized bin, add rind (no pith) and juice of the oranges and lemon, the washed and chopped sultanas, acids, pectic enzyme, nutrient and yeast. Ferment on the pulp for four days, stirring twice daily, keep well covered.
Strain into jar, add sugar and stir, top up to shoulder with cold boiled water, fit air-lock and leave to ferment out. Rack in the usual way.
This wine can either be served dry as an aperitif, or sweeten to taste and drink as a social type wine.
Can be drunk within three months but improves with keeping for a further three months.
• Susanne Masters is an ethnobotanist who writes for a number of magazines, and is doing PhD research on edible wild orchids in Turkey. This is the latest in a series of posts about the redevelopment of the ethnobotanical garden at the University of Kent.
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Shrubs, which are acidic syrups typically flavored with fruit and/or herbs, date back to the 15th century. You can read all about the interesting history here but my main interest lies in the preservative nature of shrubs. These syrups were originally concocted in order to preserve delicate fruits and herbs before the time of refrigeration. Today, they offer the same qualities but are typically developed as a fun drink, both alcohol-free and as a cocktail mixture.
There are various ways to make a shrub at home. My recipe below is about as simple as it gets – dissolve sugar in vinegar and then steep herbs in the mixture. The process doesn’t get much harder, one just has to wait a bit longer for the final product. The Kitchn has a great run down here and Serious Eats adds another layer of complexity here by suggesting cold-processed shrubs are the way to go.
A simple online search will yield a shrub recipe for just about any ingredient. Don’t limit yourself to fruit and herbs – beets, fennel and spices all make for interesting recipes!
Lemon Balm Shrub
makes 3 drinks
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup lightly packed lemon balm leaves
- Sparkling water, to serve
- Combine sugar and vinegar in a medium saucepan and stir to combine. Heat mixture over medium-high heat until it reaches a simmer, or until the sugar is fully dissolved. Remove from heat, add the lemon balm, cover and allow to steep for 10 minutes. Strain to remove the lemon balm and cool to room temperature. Transfer to an air tight container and refrigerate until ready to use.
- To make a drink: combine 1/4 cup shrub and 1 cup sparkling water in a tall glass. Stir to combine and enjoy.
Balm of the Summer Court
At 2nd level, you become imbued with the blessings of the Summer Court. You are a font of energy that offers respite from injuries. You have a pool of fey energy represented by a number of d6s equal to your druid level.
As a bonus action, you can choose an ally you can see within 120 feet of you and spend a number of those dice equal to half your druid level or less. Roll the spent dice and add them together. The target regains a number of hit points equal to the total. The target also gains 1 temporary hit point per die spent.
You regain the expended dice when you finish a long rest.
Hearth of Moonlight and Shadow
At 6th level, home can be wherever you are. During a short or long rest, you can invoke the shadowy power of the Gloaming Court to help guard your respite. At the start of the rest, you touch a point in space, and an invisible, 30-foot-radius sphere of magic appears, centered on that point. Total cover blocks the sphere.
While within the sphere, you and your allies gain a +5 bonus to Dexterity (Stealth) and Wisdom (Perception) checks, and any light from open flames in the sphere (a campfire, torches, or the like) isn’t visible outside it.
The sphere vanishes at the end of the rest or when you leave the sphere.
Starting at 10th level, you can use the hidden, magical pathways that some fey use to traverse space in a blink of an eye. As a bonus action on your turn, you can teleport up to 60 feet to an unoccupied space you can see. Alternatively, you can use your action to teleport one willing creature you touch up to 30 feet to an unoccupied space you can see.
You can use this feature a number of times equal to your Wisdom modifier (minimum of once), and you regain all expended uses of it when you finish a long rest.
Walker in Dreams
At 14th level, the magic of the Feywild grants you the ability to travel mentally or physically through dreamlands.
When you finish a short rest, you can cast one of the following spells, without expending a spell slot or requiring material components: Dream (with you as the messenger), Scrying, or Teleportation Circle.
This use of Teleportation Circle is special. Rather than opening a portal to a permanent teleportation circle, it opens a portal to the last location where you finished a long rest on your current plane of existence. If you haven’t taken a long rest on your current plane, the spell fails but isn’t wasted.
Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a long rest.
This week the D&D Team provides three new Druid Circles and an optional rule for gaining different beast shapes for Wild Shape.
Circle of Dreams
These Druids have a strong connection with the Feywild and are tied to two of its courts, the Summer Court and the Gloaming Court. They use their powers to heal, protect and grant boons to their allies.
- Balm of the Summer Court. That’s a pretty solid feature, in my opinion. You get an amount of d6s and you can use them to heal your allies. But wait, there’s more! For every die used to heal an ally, that ally gains that many temporary hit points. Also they gain and 5 feet of movement for every die spent on them. This feature is tied to the Summer Court which fits its flavor nicely.
- Hearth of Moonlight and Shadow. How useful this feature is depends on the play style of each group, which isn’t necessarily bad. It pretty much helps the party rest in unfriendly places by making them more difficult to spot and giving them the ability to spot enemies more easily. This feature is tied to the Gloaming Court. The +5 to Perception checks is nice and I really like the idea of making light from flames not visible from outside of the protected area.
- Hidden Paths. You can teleport up to 30 feet to a spot you can see. You can also use this feature to teleport an ally. This costs your action if you want to use it on an ally. However, if you want to use it on yourself, each foot of teleportation costs 1 foot of your movement. This means that if you want to teleport less than 30 feet, you can also use the remaining feet of your movement to move normally. The drawback is that you can only use it once every 1d4 rounds. Teleportation is always nice.
- Purifying Light. That’s interesting. Whenever you cast a healing spell using a spell slot, you can use a spell slot of the same level to cast Dispel Magic on the healed creature. If the spell targets more than one creatures, you can use this feature more than once spending that many spell slots. You can use it three times between long rests. Brought to you by the Summer court. So this lets you cast one extra spell during your turn in order to remove a probably harmful effect from an ally. The thing is that we don’t know how exactly Dispel Magic works for spell slots of level 1 and 2.
Overall this is a really good Circle. However, I want to mention one thing. Three of the four features give the player the extra chore of tracking dice, rounds or number of uses. This can cause problems for the player because they will have to track them but also potentially for the DM if that player does a bad job at tracking them and forgets when and how many times they have used them.
Circle of the Shepherd
While most Druids care about protecting nature, the Druids of this Circle is especially interested in protecting animals. They manage to do that by using animal spirits, summoning animals to their side and granting boons to their allies.
- Spirit Bond. You can summon a spirit and, depending on its type, you and your allies are granted some boons. You can gain the benefits only if you are in its 30-foot radius. It resembles the Totem Warrior Barbarian (even the spirit list is almost identical) but your allies also are affected in this case.
- Bear Spirit. You and your allies gain an good amount of hit points and also advantage to Strength Checks and Strength Saving Throws. That’s a pretty solid bonus.
- Hawk Spirit. You and your allies gain advantage on ranged attack rolls against targets inside the spirit’s aura. That’s the weakest of the three. The enemies have to be inside the aura in order to gain this advantage. And, usually, at this distance many characters switch to melee, at least in my experience. But most importantly it doesn’t fit the theme of the Circle, which is summoning animals to fight alongside you, because it doesn’t grant any bonuses to them, unlike the other two spirits.
- Wolf Spirit. Like the Bear Spirit, the Wolf Spirit grants two bonuses. The first one is advantage on all ability checks to detect creatures in the aura. That’s good enough. The second one is that whenever you cast a healing spell using a spell slot targeting anyone(inside or outside of the aura), any ally inside the aura gets healed for an amount of hit points equal to your Druid level. The amount of healing done may be a bit too much. But that’s why it’s considered playtest material.
- Beast Speech. That’s pretty much the Speak with Animals spell but it is always active. It fits the flavor of the Circle perfectly.
- Mighty Summoner. You increase the Hit Dice of the beasts you summon by 2 and also their natural weapons are considered magic. That looks good. But when I checked the Druid spell list I was a bit disappointed. The spells that let you summon beasts are Conjure Animals and…nothing else really. While you get spells that let you control beasts, they are not affected because the beasts aren’t summoned. This can be a problem. Well, at least flavor wise it fits well with the theme of the Circle.
- Guardian Spirit. You gain the benefits of a Death Ward spell every morning and it lasts 24 hours. It’s quite useful since it can save you and even the whole party from difficult situations.
- Faithful Summons. When you are reduced to 0 hit points or are incapacitated against your will you gain the benefits of the spell Conjure Animals cast with a 9th level spell slot. They are affected by both Spirit Bond and Mighty Summoner. I believe this feature can be more useful in the situation where you are incapacitated. That’s because, in order to get to 0 hit points, the Death Ward spell from the Guardian Spirit feature must have ended first. So Faithful Summons will trigger when you get to 0 hit points for the second time in a day. And let’s also keep in mind that there’s a chance that you will be beast shape.
This isn’t a bad Circle. Personally, it wouldn’t be my first pick. I like the theme however and hope that, after a bit more work, it will make me like it more.
Circle of Twilight
The undead do not follow the natural cycle of life and death. The Druids of this circle seek to restore the balance by destroying undead and bringing life back to places tainted by them.
- Harvest’s Scythe. This is like the Balm of the Summer Court feature of the Circle of Dreams. But this time you get a number of d10s that you use when you want to increase the damage of a spell. The type of the damage generated by these dice is necrotic. Also, if you kill a creature with a spell that has been boosted this way, you or an ally within 30 feet of you regains 2 hit points per die spent or 5 if the creature was undead. This is a very good feature and fits the flavor perfectly.
- Speech Beyond the Grave. This one lets you cast Speak with the Dead without material components. It also makes sure that you and the target understand each other. And of course fits nicely the theme of the Circle.
- Watcher at the Threshold. Not much to say. You get resistance to necrotic and radiant damage. Moreover, you grant advantage to death Saving throws to your allies, while not incapacitated. Another really good feature.
- Paths of the Dead. You can cast Etherealness once every short or long rest. I’m not sure with the wording. Is it a free spell or does it just let you cast it? Flavor wise I don’t know how much it fits.
Overall, Circle of Twilight is pretty good. It has really good features mechanic and flavor wise.
Optional Rule: Wild Shape Forms
Apart from the new Druid Circles, we are presented with an optional rule on how to learn new forms for the Wild Shape feature.
At level 2, when you get your Wild Shape feature, you choose three beast shapes from either the Temperate or Tropical list, depending on where your Druid grew up. After that, every time you level up you have to pick from the list you chose at level 2. It should be mentioned here that some of the beasts are marked as available only for the Circle of the Moon.
In addition to the free beast shapes you gain when you level up, there are two more ways that can get you extra shapes. These ways can even get you more exotic beast shapes, like a dinosaur or a saber-toothed tiger.
The first way to get a new wild shape, which also is the less risky of the two, is by observing the beast you’re interested in for at least an hour. During that time you have to stay within 150 feet of it. Then you have to succeed an Intelligence(Nature) check with a DC equal to 10 + the beast’s challenge rating. If you want to get advantage on the roll you can spend an hour studying a scholarly work about the beast. This can turn quite interesting, especially if you decide to rely on the work of Volothamp Geddarm.
The second way is riskier. You can attempt to interact peacefully with the beast you’re interested in for 10 minutes. During that time you have to stay within 15 feet of it. Then you have to succeed in a Wisdom (Animal Handling) check with a DC equal to 10 + the beast’s challenge rating. This time, in order to get advantage on the roll you have to spend at least a minute petting the beast. This can lead to pretty dangerous or hilarious situations, depending whether you’re the Druid who’s getting chased by an Allosaurus or one of the other party members watching the Druid getting chased.
You can also “cheat” a little by either observing the beast using divination magic or make it a bit more friendly with a spell like Animal Friendship.
I like this optional rule. It makes clear how you can get more beast shapes and also can lead to interesting side quests.
You can read the full article here and download the PDF here. And don’t forget, the survey about the Cleric Divine Domains can be found here.
Unearthed Arcana: Druid Circles and Wild Shape Breakdown
I guess if you’re going to call any class even obliquely harvest-holiday-themed, druid is a good one. Accordingly, this week’s Unearthed Arcana offers three new druid circles and a variant Wild Shape rule. Whatever else might be said, they took more risks with new mechanics this time than last week, and so even if I wind up disliking it (spoiler: I won’t), it’s useful as suggestions for what’s “in-bounds” for third-party design. Third-party designers get read the Riot Act for venturing too far outside the borders that Smith & Wesson Mearls & Crawford lay out in official releases, you know? Anyway, let’s get to it.
Oh, and in case you’re new around here, I have done some writing about druids before. The link points to the last article in the series, with directory links to the earlier ones.
Circle of Dreams
When it comes to a fey-themed subclass for any class, it’s not a question of if but when and what form it takes. Curiously, then, the druid with fey ties is a superior healer, in addition to improving movement. All the more oddly, they are tied to both Courts. My esteemed colleague Colin informs me that this has a lot in common with Emerald Dream lore from World of Warcraft. In specific:
- Balm of the Summer Court grants a new currency: 1d6 per druid level. Spend any number of these up to half your druid level as a bonus action; one ally you can see within 120 feet is healed for the result, and gains temporary hit points equal to the number of dice spent, and gets a speed buff for 1 minute (5 ft per die spent). You recover these on a long rest.
- Holy geez, y’all. This is a lot of functionality! I would say that this puts the Dreams druid on par with the Life cleric for top healer in the game – worse at group healing, but who needs healing word when you’ve got this going on? It’s not a spell, so you can still use your action for whatever you like.
- Relatively few subclasses hand out a new currency, and I’m surprised that the rest of the subclass doesn’t use this feature as a kind of backbone.
- I get how this meets up with the Summer Court, and I can see how the Summer Court touches on Dreams (you know, in a very White Wolf, circa 1995, way), but there’s some thematic reaching going on here.
- Hearth of Moonlight and Shadow mentions the “shadowy power of the Gloaming Court,” which… I wouldn’t have expected, but sure. Anyway, when you make a short or long-rest camp, your perceptions are heightened and your fire is hidden from those outside the camp.
- It’s not quite ribbon-ish, and in fact I’ve been in campaigns where this would be a huge Still, it’s a real contrast to the very flashy first feature. This will come up, in a way that changes outcomes, once in a long while. About as often, it will lead to the DM having to rewind narration because the PCs suddenly point out that no, the assassins didn’t see our campfire, but thanks for letting us know we blew our Perception checks!
- Hidden Paths lets the druid spend movement as a teleport effect (self-only) or spend an action to teleport an ally. The odd thing about this feature is each option refreshes separately on a 1d4-round timer.
- I don’t like the timer, which sounds like a pain in the ass to remember to track. This is why we stopped having most timers be anything between “end of next turn” and “1 minute,” unless there’s a saving throw to mark the time. I’m surprised they didn’t give it a recharge die, like monsters use.
- This is also way more free teleporting than we’ve seen to date. It’s a barely-limited number of misty step spells, and that’s just crazy. On the other hand, back in 4e they decided that short-range teleportation was the most fey thing ever, so in that regard this is unsurprising. Still, this needs toning down.
- Purifying Light is a weird feature that lets you pair a dispel magic with any spell you cast that restores hit points. My strict reading of the text suggests that you have to expend the spell slot for the dispel magic, and it must be the same level as the slot expended for healing. That’s a tough constraint. This feature also has a usage limit greater than one per long rest, so it’s another kind of currency to track.
- The privilege of dumping spell slots of third level and higher (since you can never cast dispel magic with a spell slot of 1st or 2nd level – we don’t have rules for what that would do, though it’s not complicated to project the math downward and come up with an answer) twice as fast or faster is a sort of dubious 14th-level feature. A free dispel magic up to three times per long rest would be fine, and may be what the text is supposed to say.
I like that there’s a competitive healer subclass, I like that they do more than just heal (even if it’s a different support function, that’s still interesting), and I like the fundamental principle going on in Purifying Light – an extra cookie for spending a spell slot on healing. Those are all great. I have questions about the overall balance, which is to be expected in the public playtest release, and overall Hidden Paths is just more teleporting than I want to see happening in a game. Cool stuff here overall.
Circle of the Shepherd
Drawing a meaningful thematic distinction between this subclass and the bog-standard druid is really hard, and the paragraph of flavor text here doesn’t quite get there. All druids protect nature, including animals. These druids… protect animals as the core of their practice. That doesn’t quite come out as something exciting and adventure-friendly in itself, so let’s see what happens in the mechanics.
- Spirit Bond grants you a totem animal power, a lot like Totem Warrior barbarians. If they renamed Hawk to Eagle, you’d even have the same list, with obvious storytelling benefits. These function a good bit like WoW shaman totems – a fixed area, 1-minute duration, radiating effects to allies. This ability refreshes on a short rest. (Since nothing refreshes on short but not long rests, I can safely say “refreshes on short rest” and you’ll understand that I mean “and also long.” Right? Right.) On the plus side, you learn all three and choose which one to call at the time of use.
- The Bear totem tosses out a decent number of temporary hit points, scaling shallowly with level, as its initial effect. It also radiates advantage on Strength checks and saves in its area. Solid, useful, on-point.
- The Hawk totem dips back into one of the alternate rangers – the odd-man-out non-spellcaster that got dropped like a hot rock from development – and hands out advantage on ranged attacks on targets in the effect area. Since your enemies have more control over where they stand than you do, relatively speaking, and the majority of party members will want to close and engage rather than make ranged attack rolls, this is the clear loser of the three. Also, for a class that is all about animals, this does absolutely nothing to help your conjured beasts, unlike the other two options.
- The Wolf totem buffs perception checks against creatures in the spirit’s area, and whenever the druid heals anything, all allies in the area get splashed with healing equal to the druid’s level. So you spend a 1st-level slot on cure wounds, and imagining for a minute that you’re fifth level, you heal one target for 1d8 + your Wisdom modifier, and heal 5 to every ally in the aura. Your 1st-level slot becomes a total throughput of 1d8 + let’s say 4 + 15-30. Uh, no. This desperately needs to scale by the slot expended in some way, rather than just druid level. Disciple of Life and Blessed Healer need to be the models here.
- Beast Speech is an always-on speak with animals. Fine, no problem. It would be weird not to have this.
- Mighty Summoner is, you know, Undead Thralls from the Necromancer (in theme if not precise function), and allows your beasts to strike as magic. I sort of get why it has to be this way, but for the Shepherd to conjure the sheep (well, beasts of all species) rather than actually having a pet seems odd. (But you wouldn’t call a druid with one sheep a shepherd, you’d call him something culturally insensitive to England’s northerly neighbors.) Anyway, this is fine, but it means that this feature, and your expected playstyle, are mainly about one third-level spell. When you don’t have a spare 3rd-level slot, or you lose Concentration, that’s kinda the ballgame.
- Guardian Spirit grants a free death ward when you wake up in the morning, and it lasts all day. As a cool thing to get, it’s fine. Might even save your life a time or two. It has pretty much nothing to do with the rest of the subclass’s theme, though.
- Faithful Summons makes a bunch of angry animals come around to bust some kneecaps whenever someone does you wrong. Okay, it actually casts conjure animals as a 9th-level spell and sets the duration to 1 hour (no Concentration) and makes them attack your foes while you’re out (as opposed to just defending themselves when you can’t or don’t give an order). That’s pretty cool and all, but anything that can knock a 14th-level druid’s teeth in can probably make rugs out of four CR 2 beasts, even if they do have some extra hit points. As has been pointed out elsewhere, in combination with Guardian Spirit, this means that Faithful Summons triggers the second time you would get taken out in a day. I’m guessing this doesn’t come up much in most games.
The theme and mechanics of the Circle of the Shepherd don’t really come together, to me. The animal-protecting theme doesn’t carve out an interesting enough space in a fantasy world, the mechanics have a fairly loose connection to that theme, and I’m not really sold on the playstyle or how much this subclass expects you to get beaten down.
Circle of Twilight
Now we’re talking. No matter what kind of druid you’re playing (other than blight druids, because why should Death clerics have all the fun), you can get behind destroying some undead. This is the subclass for people who drop their amateur status and decide to go pro in that field. Don’t worry, they’re cool against other kinds of opponents too.
- Harvest’s Scythe is another new-currency feature, but instead of being free healing d6s, it’s a pool of damage-boosting d10s. Necrotic damage is an odd choice for the undead-killers, because without looking it up I assume that some percentage of the undead are necrotic resistant. This is incredible for big AoEs, since the dice apply to all targets. When you juice a spell in this way and kill a hostile creature (no bag of rats, plzkthx), you heal yourself or one ally within 30 feet for 2 per die spent, or 5 per die if a creature you killed was undead. Any way you slice it, though, this feature is boss as hell.
- The first time you toss off a sunbeam for 6d8 radiant + 6d10 or more necrotic and a big pack of undead have to suck up disadvantage on that save, that will be a real happy time for you.
- Speech Beyond the Grave is a free speak with dead once per short rest. Fits in strongly with the theme of later features.
- Watcher at the Threshold grants resistance to radiant and necrotic damage, and you grant advantage on death saves to allies. Nice strong connection to Speech Beyond the Grave theme, handy mechanics, what’s not to like?
- Paths of the Dead is not just for Aragorn and Vlad Taltos anymore. It lets you cast etherealness once per short rest. I’m a touch confused on whether you need to spend a spell slot to do so, but I assume not. This is cool, but I admit that the name set me up to hope for too much. No reasonable complaint, though.
I would play the Circle of Twilight in a heartbeat. I can’t think of any other way to put that. This subclass has its act together in theme and mechanics. I have a vague concern that Harvest’s Scythe might be too good, but I’d have to see it in use to know. It’s potentially a lot of healing, but you’ve got to pay attention to how likely you are to finish the target off. I would allow this in my campaign immediately.
Wild Shape Forms
Finally, we have a variant Wild Shape rule, intended to make the huge variety of options more manageable and provide a clearer path to learning new forms. The text calls out that dinosaurs, saber-toothed tigers, and so on are “more exotic” shapes, and learning those shapes can be a worthy quest goal or reward. That sounds like a cool campaign thing to me, as long as the player doesn’t come into the game with the view that the DM owes it to them to make all shapes accessible in short order.
You start with three beast shapes known, picked from either the Tropical or Temperate lists based on your homeland. Several are marked for the Circle of the Moon only. Each time you gain a druid level, you add one creature from your 2nd-level list. I guess you never get to pick from the 4th-level and 8th-level lists for free, and always have to Observe or Interact with those. Well, druids needed mechanics-side stuff to want, so that’s good with me.
Observing a creature means spending an hour within 150 feet of the target creature, and making an Intelligence (Nature) check against what’s probably not too hard of a DC, but your bonus probably isn’t amazing either. You can even play a bookish druid and get a bonus – advantage on the roll if you’ve read a scholarly work on the creature. If you’ve ever read a (translation of a) medieval bestiary talking about real or fantastical creatures, this is hilarious and you may agree that it’s unlikely to help.
Interaction is the high-risk mode, unless someone else has already put the creature in a petting zoo for you. Okay, I have to admit, I love the idea of a druid seeing an awesome new creature in a noble’s menagerie, interacting with it while the rest of the PCs distract the noble, and starting the petting-zoo jailbreak by adopting that form. Anyway, this is a Wisdom (Animal Handling) check against the same DC, which is probably easier for most druids, but you have to get close enough to risk being lunch. But, spoiler!, you’re a druid, you’ve probably got a spell for this. At first level. It’s called animal friendship.
These rules are a hefty nerf to the druid, but it’s also fair to look at them as a clarification of intent. Overall I like them, but then I don’t have a current druid PC getting my options slashed by this change. I wonder what percentage of druid characters really use the full breadth of their options?
I’m happy to see the druid get UA attention, since (like the barbarian and bard) it is so thin on options in the Player’s Handbook. The core of the class is incredibly stripped down – it’s a spell list and spell slots attached to some fairly minor shapeshifting at all but the highest levels. This means that almost everything with thematic weight has to come from the subclasses, much like the warlock and its two axes of subclass choice (and all that Invocation customization), or the wizard. I’m nonplussed by the Circle of the Shepherd, but Dreams and Twilight are solid expansions on Land and Moon.