Summertime is full of fun stuff – sun, surf and big, silly blockbuster movies – but there’s one part of summer that’s not so fun: the BUGS. ‘Tis the season for mosquitoes, fleas and other itch-inducing insects to come out in full force, leaving your skin covered in bites and your fingers frantically scratching away, desperate for a little relief.
I’ve always been a magnet for mosquitoes and other bite-happy bugs, and my skin is super-sensitive to bug bites. Once, when I was in elementary school, my dog Louie became the unwitting host to a pretty extraordinary number of fleas that arrived very suddenly one weekend. Unaware of his unwelcome visitors, I spent the weekend playing and snuggling with him as usual. By that Monday, I was so completely covered in angry, itchy red bites that my teacher sent me home thinking I had chicken pox!
So come summertime, I’m always on the lookout for new natural ways to repel those pesky little biters. Commercial bug repellents like Cutter and Off are full of nasty chemicals like DEET, so they’re unwelcome anywhere near my skin. Call me crazy, but since I try my utmost to keep pesticides off my veggies and out of my diet, I’m not about to go rubbing pesticides on my skin!
How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Bugs and Love My Lemon Balm
A few weeks ago, I planted lemon balm in my herb garden. I’d never used it before, and didn’t know much about the herb, but I was attracted to the scent and the pretty, bushy leaves and thought it would be a nice addition to my herb garden.
I did a little research on lemon balm to see how I could put it to practical use, and now I’m very happy I did!
Lemon balm is a member of the mint family, and looks quite similar, with soft, grooved, slightly “furry” leaves. But rather than having a minty fresh scent, it has a strong lemony aroma, somewhat similar to lemon verbena and citronella.
Here are a few cool benefits of lemon balm that I found:
- Improves digestion
- Promotes relaxation
- Alleviates stress and anxiety
- Helps cold sores and blisters—crush leaves and apply to the affected area
- Attracts bees and butterflies
But while bees and butterflies love lemon balm, other, less desirable bugs don’t feel quite so favorably about it.
Lemon balm is a natural bug repellent.
It contains high levels of a compound called citronellal, which gives it its lemony aroma and flavor that bugs find so unpleasant. You’ll notice that “citronellal” sounds a lot like “citronella,” another plant used in many bug repellent sprays, lotions and candles.
But why shell out money for one of these products that almost always contain other, potentially questionable or downright toxic ingredients? You can just plant a cheap little lemon balm plant (mine cost $2.99) and you’ll have a near-endless supply of bug repellent just sitting in your yard, ready whenever you need it!
How to Use Lemon Balm
Crush the fresh leaves and rub them directly on your skin, especially around the ankles, arms and other areas most exposed and vulnerable to bug bites. The lemon scent, which repels the bugs, is very strong. It rubs off very well onto skin. You can just sort of crush the leaf up a bit, and then use the leaf like a wipe.
How and Where to Grow Lemon Balm:
Plant the lemon balm outside, perhaps near your front or back door, or on your deck, patio or wherever else you often sit outside, as the plants will help ward off bugs in those areas.
Lemon balm happily thrives in sun or partial shade, and should be kept in moist, well-drained soil. Keep in mind though that, like other mints, lemon balm is invasive, and it will spread and take over your garden like a weed if you let it. For that reason, it’s best to keep it contained in a pot.
5 More Plants That Repel Biting Bugs
Lemon balm isn’t the only herb on the block that keeps bugs at bay. Here are 5 more herbs that work as bug repellents. Like lemon balm, you can plant them in areas you want to keep bugs away from, or crush the leaves and rub them into your skin. If your pets suffer from fleas, you can also use these herbs for them.
Sort of “the original” for bug repelling, with a powerful lemony scent. It’s used in many commercial bug repellents and candles. I’m a little hesitant to plant it though, as I understand it can be a skin irritant. It’s also not quite as portable as lemon balm or the others listed below. It’s a grass-like plant that grows up to 6 feet tall! If you’re looking for citronella, make sure you get the varieties Cybopogon nardus or Citronella winterianus, as some other citronella varieties won’t have the same effect—some aren’t even true citronellas, they’re just citronella-scented.
Studies suggest that catnip may be even more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET (the ingredient used in most commercial bug repellents, which is highly toxic). It also repels cockroaches, an attribute that many of us living in urban areas can certainly appreciate. It can be used similarly to lemon balm; crushed and rubbed onto the skin. A word of caution to cat owners: watch where you plant your catnip! Your cat may want to roll around on it and play with it. Plant catnip apart from the rest of your garden so your cat doesn’t accidentally damage any other plants nearby.
In addition to mosquitoes, marigolds repel garden pests, too! We have lots of marigolds growing in the Gerson Institute’s garden to keep the bugs away from our veggies. The flowers are edible as well, and add color and flavor to salads or can be a gorgeous garnish when you want to dress up a dish.
Grow it around the house and garden to keep bugs away. It’ll grow inside too, if you keep it next to a sunny window. Has a lovely scent, pretty purple flowers and calming properties as well, so it’s a charming addition to your garden or home for several reasons!
Biting bugs don’t like the scent of peppermint, so you can crush up the leaves and rub it on your skin to ward them off. As an added bonus, peppermint also can also do double-duty as itch relief if you do get bitten!
Have you tried using any of these herbal bug repellents? Or, have you found other natural repellents that work?
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This article was originally published on July 16, 2013