A Beautiful Ancient Herb

As with all herbs, the healing properties of Basil has been handed down through folk medicine in many cultures.  The subtleties of its culinary uses were developed centuries later.

Early texts seem to suggest that basil is the magic answer to menstrual cramps in women but sadly neither women nor scientists agree!  That’s a shame, because basil-rich pesto’s or alternatively a sprinkling of chopped basil on a tomato salad might have been an easy solution to a really annoying problem for women!

Different types of Basil

Holy Basil or Tulsi

Basil is a member of the large mint family, or Lamiaceae family, along with other culinary herbs like rosemary, sage, and even lavender.

There are around 60 different species and varieties of Basil mostly native to India, Iran, and some regions of Asia. Basil is now cultivated worldwide as one of the most popular culinary herbs.

Tulsi or Holy Basil seems to have played a central role in SE Asian cultures, where it was revered as one of the three most sacred herbs in India hence its name.  (The two other herbs being Lotus and Soma.) Descriptions of the effects of Lotus and Soma seem to show that they contained active molecules which produced some ‘euphoric’ effect. Tulsi’s attributes were thought to “expand and sharpen awareness, aid meditation and promote compassion”.

Basil is called by many names like Sweet basil or even Thai basil, but all of its common names refer to the herb’s botanical name, Ocimum basilicum. There are many varieties of Basil apart from Holy Basil … such as the familiar Lemon Basil, Purple Ruffles, Cinnamon Basil, Spicy Bush Basil and Clove Basil.  All have subtle differences in flavour due to slight differences in the chemistry of the basil oil.

Origins of Basil 

In ancient Egypt, Basil was probably used as an embalming and preserving herb as it has been found in many Egyptian tombs and mummies.  The herb also has a strong history for its use in ancient Vedic practices of Ayureda in India.  Basil is thought to have originated even farther east than India with ancient records from 807 A.D. suggesting that sweet basil was used in the Hunan region of China. From that time it seems to have begun to be cultivated as it gradually spread westward as whole plants. Most of its varieties can be grown easily from seed and easily kept indoors, away from exposure to cold climates and frost.

Health benefits of Basil

Present research indicates that Basil may have a calming and soothing effect. It has been shown to synthesise antibacterial compounds which may give some credence to the ancient belief that strewing it around temple doors purified the air. In parts of Africa, an infusion made from Basil leaves soaked in boiling water, is used as a kind of conditioner after shampooing hair which seems to have been used to control dandruff and other scalp complaints. It certainly offers an alternative to chewing parsley to get rid of the post garlic breath problem ….. that all depends whether you like the intense taste! It is loaded with antioxidants which scavenge free radicals which damage cells.

Culinary Uses


Today,  Basil is one of the most widely-used culinary herbs in the world. With so many culinary uses from pestos to yummy homemade spaghetti sauce, and savoury desserts to fresh fruit salads, fresh basil is invaluable in the kitchen.  In cooking, basil is most commonly used fresh in cooked recipes. The fresh leaves are added at the last moment, more often than not as cooking quickly destroys the herb’s distinct flavour.  Nowadays, Basil production is intense as also seen throughout history, basil is not only used as a food flavouring, but also in perfumery, incense, and herbal holistic remedies  …… oh! and as a natural deterrent to insects!