The buzz on Melissa

The summer intern on the language of comics project is named Melissa, and I grow the scent-herb lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), so I thought this would be a good occasion for a little posting on words and plants.

From Wikipedia:

Melissa is a given name for a female child. The name comes from the Greek word μέλισσα (melissa), “honey bee”, which in turn comes from μέλι (meli), “honey”.

… According to Greek mythology, perhaps reflecting Minoan culture in making her the daughter of a Cretan king Melissos, Melissa was a nymph who discovered and taught the use of honey and from whom bees were believed to have received their name.

(The OED has many more etymological details. It also has the English word — attested from ca. 1400 on — mell ‘honey’, taken right from Latin, and the wonderful derivative mellifluous, from post-classical Latin mellifluus ‘sweet as honey, flowing with honey’; compare fluent.)

On to the plant, which is called Melissa because it’s attractive to bees. OED3 (June 2001):

A plant of the genus Melissa (family Lamiaceae (Labiatae)), esp. lemon balm, M. officinalis, chiefly as used medicinally

The plant has pleasantly lemon-scented leaves and small white labiate flowers. It’s tough and often invasive. Two shots:

The Wikipedia entry warns us not to confuse lemon balm with bee balm (genus Monarda):

Monarda is a genus consisting of roughly 16 species of erect, herbaceous, annual or perennial plants in the family Lamiaceae [or Labiatae]. The genus is endemic to North America.

… In all species, the leaves, when crushed, exude a spicy, highly fragrant oil. Of the species examined in one study, M. didyma (Oswego Tea) was found to contain the highest concentration of this oil. Common names include bee balm, horsemint, oswego tea, and bergamot, the last one due to the leaves’ fragrance resembling that of Citrus bergamia fruits. The genus was named for Nicolás Monardes, who wrote a book in 1574 describing plants found in the New World. (link)

Bee balms are much more spectacular plants than lemon balm: very strongly scented leaves and (in many species) showy flowers, in red, purple, pink, lavender, lilac, or white. They attract hummingbirds as well as bees. An old-fashioned garden favorite, Monarda didyma ‘Cambridge Scarlet’:

Buzz, buzz.



5 Responses to “The buzz on Melissa”

  1. beslayed Says:

    The whole Lamiaceae family is tough and invasive, in my experience.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      That’s pretty much fair. Still, they’re among my favorite plants, for a variety of reasons. In Ohio, I tended to plant them in areas where they could spread, and then hack them back from one another (and other plants).

  2. Labiates « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « The buzz on Melissa […]

  3. Bee Balm (Monarda )Flower | Arozinov's Blog Says:

    […] The buzz on Melissa ( […]

  4. Sunday jottings | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] What Cymbopogon and Citronella share is the lemony scent/taste, which occurs in other plants, for example lemon balm (or just balm for short), botanically Melissa officinalis (in the family Lamiaceae, formerly Labiatae); discussion of the plant, with photos, on this blog, here. […]

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