Holy Basil - Ingredient Inspiration

What is: Holy Basil?

Delicate, arched back leaves follow a single stem up to a cone-shaped bouquet of flowering buds. Traditional basil has bright green leaves and white buds, but Holy Basil has a deeper tone - hints of purple in its spine and buds of pastel and rich, resonant purple. Sharp, sweet and warm on the palette, it's no wonder this plant has been worshiped for more than three thousand years.

As powerful and mythical as it is beautiful, 15th-century herbalist John Gerard noted that "those stung by scorpions would feel no pain if they ate of basil". Nicholas Culpeper, a prominent herbalist, and astrologer of the 1600's noted basil was "a herb of Mars and under the Scorpion, dubbing it "Basilicon" Latin for Basilisk - the mythical king of serpents.

  • Origins

While many variations of basil exist around the world, Holy Basil originates from North Central India. Aside from its use in Traditional Chinese Medicine TCM and Ayurveda, it was pretty much unheard of in the U.S. until the mid-1970s, due to the popularity of kundalini, yoga and the health food movement. It’s now available in the vitamin section of almost every health food store.

Holy basil's flavor and outward beauty are just a fraction of this plants gifts. As a society, we’ve lost touch with our intuitive selves. We are floating in a sea of unseen information. We feel it but we have a hard time accessing it. We carry the stress of the day, of our bosses and our bills, and the frustrations of our loved ones are draped around our shoulders like a weighty cloak. Just imagine if we were able to shed each layer until we were at one with our unknown knowing. These are the kind of awakenings that can happen when we make plants our allies again, as they once were an intrinsic part of our fabric, allowing us to channel specific powers within.

  • History

While it has only relatively recently gained popularity in the United States, Holy Basil has been used in Greek, Roman and Siddha medicine for thousands of years. "Tulsi" as it’s called in India, has been grown for more than 3,000 years, making this sacred herb an integral part of Ayurvedic medicine and thus a cornerstone of one of civilization's oldest medical systems.

Ayurvedic medicine originated in India and is said to have been transmitted from the gods to the sages and then to human physicians. Early Sanskrit describes Ayurveda as having eight components covering the tactile bodily needs with general medicine, pediatrics, surgery and ears/nose/throat. It also deals with a person’s more esoteric needs like the pacification of possessing spirits, toxicology, rejuvenation and tonics for increasing lifespan, intellect and strength, and finally aphrodisiacs for increasing sexual pleasure, stamina, and sperm viability.

To say the least, in the Ayurvedic tradition, Holy Basil is one of the most versatile herbs; its potency and qualities encompass a vast array of healing properties that assist with maintenance of a healthy system.

  • Nutrients & Beneficial Properties

Holy Basil is what we refer to in the world of herbal medicine as an adaptogen: a natural substance considered to help the body adapt to stress and to exert a normalizing effect upon bodily processes. A key function Holy Basil performs is lowering the body's cortisol levels. Cortisol is one of the main hormones associated with stress and with our stress levels reduced, we are able to lift the veil of the everyday hustle and bustle and connect to the intuitive, deep knowing parts of ourselves.

Just half a cup of Holy Basil (about as much as you'd need for a pesto recipe) contains 98% of your daily vitamin K recommendation. Vitamin K is responsible for healthy blood flow and heart health and is a major player in keeping our sex organs in proper working order and our anxiety levels low.

Research shows that Holy Basil is loaded with the flavonoids orientin and vicenin, responsible for protecting white blood cells, as well as chromosomes from radiation and oxygen-based damage.

In addition, using Holy Basil essential oil can help with removing unwanted bacteria growth. It turns out that it contains volatile oils (also known as essential oils) such as estragole, linalool, cineole, eugenol, sabinene, myrcene, and limonene which work together to make it highly antibacterial. Lab studies have shown that Holy Basil restricts the growth of numerous food poisoning and spoilage bacteria, including Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli O:157:H7, Yersinia enterocolitica, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

And as if that's not enough, Holy Basil also contains a substance called eugenol that can block the activity of an enzyme in the body called cyclooxygenase (COX). Most over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS), including aspirin and ibuprofen, work by inhibiting this same enzyme.

  • Farming methods

Holy Basil or Tulsi is a shrub and belongs to the 'Lamiaceae' family. It can be grown in a wide variety of climates including tropical and subtropical conditions. Long summer days with high temperatures are best for a good oil content. It requires moist soil and humid conditions. However, it can also thrive in dry shaded conditions, although you'll get a lower oil content. 

Bottom line, it's a really easy plant to grow. Just about anyone can do this at home. There are many great organic suppliers of seeds to choose from online. It's best to sow the seeds in early Spring, just after the last frost. Holy Basil enjoys regular pruning, but unlike most herbs, you must harvest from the bud, onward. Do this by pinching at the white and pastel bouquets just above the top leaves. At the end of the warm season, it is typically harvested on the last full moon of Autumn, before the winter chill takes hold. Alternately, you can plant her in pots and bring her into a sunny place indoors and keep her all year-round.

  • Spiritual effects

The Ayurvedic equivalent to an adaptogen is Rasayana and the definition is slightly more nuanced: "Rasayana" are herbs that fundamentally restore balance and harmony in the mind, body, and spirit.

Holy Basil is referred to as "The Elixir of Life", "Mother of Medicine" and in Traditional Chinese Medicine as "Shen Tonic" which translates to "herb that nourishes the spirit." In Hindu, it's called Tulsi. Ritually sipping Tulsi tea in the morning or at the end of a night will coat the body in a warm and peaceful sensation, relaxing the nervous system and bringing harmony within. In a more esoteric sense, it does this by aligning the chakras, restoring balance to the electromagnetic fields created by an over anxious mind.   

Due to its deep healing properties, it is possible to experience life-altering epiphanies or some sort of spiritual catharsis while sipping Holy Basil tea. Often a big part of spiritual balancing is the release of parts that are no longer serving us. For this reason, one may go through an emotional and sometimes physical detoxing process. It is important to let go and allow these feelings to pass through.

As with any herb, quality, potency, and purity are very important. Look for certified organic or wild-harvested Holy Basil whenever possible. Since Holy Basil is often grown in developing countries, it's also important to check for ethical sourcing practices, as this can be an issue with low-grade suppliers. On the plus side, high-quality, sustainably sourced Tulsi is relatively inexpensive and, as mentioned, easy to grow yourself.

It's best to start slowly and work up to higher doses until you understand how your body reacts. Try this recipe to get you started.

Recipe - Yogi Tonic

5 cardamom pods

5 black peppercorns

1 inch peeled ginger

¼ cup dried holy basil (or 5 tea bags)

7 cups filtered water

Combine all ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and cover for at least ten minutes. Strain the contents into a large pitcher and sweeten to taste if required. It can be kept in the fridge for up to seven days and served hot or cold over ice.