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.
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’: