The herb Balm, or Melissa, which is cultivated quite commonly in our cottage gardens, has its origin in the wild, or bastard Balm, growing in our woods, especially in the South of England, and bearing the name of "Mellitis." Each is a labiate plant, and "Bawme," say the Arabians, "makes the heart merry and joyful." The title, "Balm," is an abbreviation of Balsam, which signifies "the chief of sweet-smelling oils;" Hebrew,
Bal smin, "chief of oils"; and the botanical suffix, Melissa, bears reference to the large quantity of honey (mel) contained in the flowers of this herb.
When cultivated, it yields from its leaves and tops an essential oil which includes a chemical principle, or "stearopten." "The juice of Balm," as Gerard tells us,
"glueth together greene wounds," and the leaves, say both Pliny and Dioscorides, "being applied, do close up wounds without any perill of inflammation." It is now known as a scientific fact that the balsamic oils of aromatic plants make most excellent surgical dressings. They give off ozone, and thus exercise anti-putrescent effects. Moreover, as chemical "hydrocarbons," they contain so little oxygen, that in wounds dressed with the
fixed balsamic herbal oils, the atomic germs of disease are starved out. Furthermore, the resinous parts of these balsamic oils, as they dry upon the sore or wound, seal it up, and effectually exclude all noxious air. So the essential oils of balm, peppermint, lavender, and the like, with pine oil, resin of turpentine, and the balsam of benzoin (Friars' Balsam) should serve admirably for ready application on lint or fine rag to cuts and
superficial sores. In domestic surgery, the lamentation of Jeremiah falls to the ground: "Is there no balm in Gilead: is there no physician there?" Concerning which "balm of Gilead," it may be here told that it was formerly of great esteem in the East as a medicine, and as a fragrant unguent. It was the true balsam of Judea, which at one time grew nowhere else in the whole world but at Jericho. But when the Turks took the Holy Land, they
transplanted this balsam to Grand Cairo, and guarded its shrubs most jealously by Janissaries during the time the balsam was flowing.
In the "Treacle Bible," 1584, Jeremiah viii., v. 22, this passage is rendered: "Is there not treacle at Gylead?" Venice treacle, or triacle, was a famous antidote in the middle ages to all animal poisons. It was named Theriaca (the Latin word for our present treacle) from the Greek word Therion, a small animal, in allusion to the vipers which were added to the triacle by Andromachus, physician to the emperor Nero.
Tea made of our garden balm, by virtue of the volatile oil, will prove restorative, and will promote perspiration if taken hot on the access of a cold or of influenza; also, if used in like manner, it will help effectively to bring on the delayed monthly flow with women. But an infusion of the plant made with cold water, acts better as a remedy for hysterical headache, and as a general nervine stimulant because the volatile aromatic virtues
are not dispelled by heat. Formerly, a spirit of balm, combined with lemon peel, nutmeg, and angelica-root, enjoyed a great reputation as a restorative cordial under the name of Carmelite water. Paracelsus thought so highly of balm that he believed it would completely revivify a man, as primum ens melissoe. The London Dispensatory of 1696 said: "The essence of balm given in Canary wine every morning will renew youth, strengthen the
brain, relieve languishing nature, and prevent baldness." "Balm," adds John Evelyn, "is sovereign for the brain, strengthening the memory, and powerfully chasing away melancholy." In France, women bruise the young shoots of balm, and make them into cakes, with eggs, sugar, and rose water, which they give to mothers in childbed as a strengthener.
It is fabled that the Jew Ahasuerus (who refused a cup of water to our Savior on His way to Golgotha, and was therefore doomed to wander athirst until Christ should come again) on a Whitsuntide evening, asked for a draught of small beer at the door of a Staffordshire cottager who was far advanced in consumption. He got the drink, and out of gratitude advised the sick man to gather in the garden three leaves of Balm, and to put them into a
cup of beer. This was to be repeated every fourth day for twelve days, the refilling of the cup to be continued as often as might be wished; then "the disease shall be cured and thy body altered." So saying, the Jew departed and was never seen there again. But the cottager obeyed the injunction, and at the end of the twelve days had become a sound man.
The Primitive Simplers presented here show the way of life in other generations, it is not suggested or recommended trying them yourself.