California Poppy & Lemon Balm: Wild Herbal Nervines

The bright, cheerful blossoms of California Poppy, Escholzia californica, are all over Portland right now. I was excited to find them in the secret alleyway behind my apartment and decided on a whim to make an anti-anxiety tincture with them. I had been taking store-bought Passionflower extract as needed as a sleep aid and for irritability, but I wanted to make my own alternative from a local plant I could wild harvest myself, and California Poppy is well-regarded as a gentle herbal sedative and anti-anxiety medicine, long used to help children fall asleep. (California Poppy is not closely related to the narcotic opium poppy, Papaver somnifera, which is far stronger in its medicinal action).

As I picked the blossoms, I let my dog, Petunia, sunbathe next to me. We were the picture of serenity until another dog walked by on a leash and she bolted across the street, barking all the while. My stress levels went up-up-up as I chased after her, and I decided right then to up the potency of the stress-relief medicine I was making by adding in some Lemon Balm, Melissa officinalis. Lemon Balm, an anti-anxiety herb, was growing in a small patch just a few feet away. I’ve smoked Lemon Balm with Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and noticed a significant relaxing effect. Folks who have come on my Urban Foraging 101 plant walk often do, too. One person who came to my last walk actually said, “Thanks for getting me high.” Ha!

California Poppy

Lemon Balm, which is in the mint family, has also been very useful to me as an anti-viral herb in tea for colds and flus. (Both California Poppy and Lemon Balm can be dried for tea as an alternative to tincturing.) A person who came to another class said she was going to infuse it in apple cider vinegar for cleaning, owing to its anti-viral properties, and its potential for creating a lemon-scented kitchen. Though I haven’t used it in this way yet, Lemon Balm is also reportedly an anti-spasmodic said to be useful for menstrual cramps, and as a carminative, which means it helps relieve digestive upset due to gas bloating.

As per the tincture recipes in Michael Moore’s book, “Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West,” I used 1 part fresh herb (all above-ground parts of the plants) to 2 parts solvent. The solvent I used was 50% alcohol, a mixture of vodka and water with a dash of glycerine for sweet flavor.

Both plants are feral garden plants that grow in sunny, disturbed areas, and which herbalists consider nervines, or plants that act to calm the nerves. They work differently, however, and they contain different constituents. Interestingly, I noticed that they also have different energies about them. The California Poppy has a bright, cheerful, quiet feeling to it, whereas the Lemon Balm is more of a graceful, high-vibrating, reserved sort of sunny personality. (Yes, this is the first time I’ve written publicly about plants as plant people — this is the truth of how I experience plants, so it will happen more often.)

Notes on harvesting:
* California Poppy: Avoid yellow (rather than orange) blossoms, as they may indicate soil with high levels of heavy metals (per Moore’s book).
* Lemon Balm: Take just the tops to sustainably harvest so that the plant will re-grow.

Bonus factoid: California Poppy flowers are edible — you can add the blossoms to your salads for a fun pop of color.

Lemon Balm, Melissa officinalis, is useful as an anti-viral, a sedative, and an anti-anxiety medicine.

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14 thoughts on “California Poppy & Lemon Balm: Wild Herbal Nervines

  1. Nice blog! I just wanted to put a helpful word out to any Californian readers – I don’t know about in other states, but it is illegal in California to pick California Poppies that are not on your property. So no picking wild poppies. I’m sure this is to aid propagation since it’s self-seeding, and thanks to it the freeways and parks are always so beautiful in the spring tinged with orange-gold bunches of poppies. I’ve seen other writers indication that this law might extend to other plants and flowers, but I’m not so sure. I’ll admit I’ve plucked a number of things from my local park, but anyone serious about foraging in California might want to check these laws out further. Happy harvesting!

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  3. Lemon balm becomes a real pest in the garden. Also, to me, it smells like dish soap. Lemon verbena has a much more pleasant smell and I think I’ve heard it has some culinary or remedial properties

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  8. I am brand new to your blog and so excited to read every single thing you’ve written about! Thanks so much for providing this information.

  9. When you say you smoke it do you use a bong pipe or papers? or can you direct me to a blog about it here. I have a shisha pipe but it isn’t very good and it takes to much sucking it isn’t relaxing at all. Nice post. cheers

    • Hey there Prue, I use papers, a glass pipe, or a bubbler pipe. A bong would work. A shisha pipe, if it is a hookah like I imagine, would probably be a PITA for this purpose.

      • Thanks mate, I’m going to try to get my hand on a nice old fashioned pipe, the shisha I have is to much to set up for just a coupler puffs of something and it isn’t a flash one and hard to use not relaxing at all. thanks for sharing! :)

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