- Family Labiatae
- Ocimum basilicum (St. Josephwort, Common Basil, Sweet Basil, Spanish: Albahaca, Albahacar/Alboharcar, Albácar; Maya: Kha-kal-tun)
- Ocimum basilicum var. purpurascens (Dark opal basil)
- Ocimum basilicum var. citriodorum (Lemon basil)
- Ocimum basilicum var. minimum (Bush basil, Greek basil)
- Ocimum sanctum (Holy Basil, Tulsi [Hindi])
- Do not use the essential oil internally or externally during pregnancy.
- Do not use medicinally during pregnancy or while breastfeeding or give to young children or infants. Normal cooking amounts are not harmful, however.
- Diabetics should cautiously use the herb medicinally.
Native to India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, basil is a strongly aromatic annual growing to about twenty to thirty inches in height. It has shiny oval leaves; a square stem; and small white, pale green, or purple-red flowers in whorls. There are at least 150 varietie, of this member of the mint family grown around the world for their distinctive flavour and essential oil. Each variety of basil differs in height, colour of foliage, and taste. Of the six common varieties of basil found in the US, sweet basil and dwarf basil are the most popular. The leaves and flowering tops are gathered as the plant comes into flower.
Long associated with death, basil was planted on graves in ancient Persia, Malaysia, and Greece. Today, the herb is still used at the altars of the Greek Orthodox churches.
Basil was introduced to Europe from India, where the leaves were often placed in the hands of the dead to ensure a safe journey to the next world.
The blossoms were scattered over the tombs of ancient Egypt as it was believed that basil opened the gates of heaven.
Ancient Romans used basil to relieve gas and to counteract poisoning, as well as a diuretic, and to stimulate breast milk production.
The herb was long used as a “snuff” to clear nervous headaches and congestion.
In Japan, it was used to treat the common cold.
In Jewish lore, basil was said to lend strength while fasting, even simply by holding it in the hand.
In Haiti, it is believed to belong to the pagan love goddess Erzulie, as a powerful protector.
Mexicans sometimes plant it in front of their houses to ward off evil. Some carry “lucky basil” in a pocket or purse to magnetize money or to return a lover’s roving eye.
In India, it is revered as a sacred herb of the wife of the god who preserves life. Holy Basil is so named because it is often planted around temples and courtyards in India.
In the 1st century CE Materia Medica, the Greek physician Dioscorides described the African belief that eating sweet basil checks the pain of a scorpion sting.
The 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper reiterated the use of basil for scorpion stings and related this tale of a man who, after smelling basil, grew one of the beasts in his brain.
Like other herbs whose Spanish name begins with the Arabic prefix “al”, basil was likely introduced to Spain by the Moors.
Its name is thought to have resulted from the Greek word “basileus”, meaning king, signifying its place as a royal herb since only the king was allowed to harvest it.
- prevents vomiting
- stimulates the adrenal cortex
- soothes itching
(b) Holy Basil
- lowers blood pressure and blood sugar levels
- reduces fever
- good source of beta carotene, calcium, and vitamin C
- volatile oil (1% including estragol, linalool, linalool, eugenol, methyl chavicol and small quantities of methyl cinnamate, cineole, and other terpenes)
- basil camphor
(b) Holy Basil
- volatile oil (1% including eugenol, methyl chavicol, methyl eugenol, caryophyllene)
- flavonoids (apigenin, luteolin)
- triterpene: urolic acid
- Leaves, flowering tops, essential oil
- Medicinally, it has many of the same properties as other mint species, demonstrating an antimicrobial effect. The essential oil has been found to have antibacterial, antiyeast, and insecticidal action.
- Researchers have found that basil can kill some intestinal parasites and that the seeds and oil have mild antibiotic effects.
- At one time, there were fears that a chemical in basil called estragole caused liver tumors in mice, but that fear has since proven unfounded. The same holds true for another constituent of basil, called safrole, supposedly thought to promote cancer.
- Steam is inhaled to relieve congestion
- Crushed fresh leaves can be rubbed on to cuts, abrasions, insect bites and stings to reduce itching and inflammation.
- Infusion is used to treat most ailments, but, when combined with a little motherwort and drunk immediately after childbirth, it prevents the retention of the placenta.
- Tinctures can be combined with wood betony and skullcap for nervous conditions or with elecampane and hyssop for coughs and bronchitis.
- Wash made from the juice of basil and honey is used for ringworm and itching skin.
- Juice is mixed with a decoction of cinnamon and cloves to treat chills.
- Syrup is used for coughs
- Essential oil is distilled and used to reduce sinus and nasal congestion, promote relaxation, and improve the mood. It can be added to a bath for nervous exhaustion, mental fatigue, melancholy, or uneasiness. It can also be used in a neutral oil as a chest rub for asthma or bronchitis or as a massage oil, when combined with other oils, for nervous weakness or an insect repellant.
Today, basil is used mainly as a culinary herb. Its medicinal value is not as widely appreciated in the Western world.
Basil has been used to treat a variety of conditions, including the following: anxiety and tension, congestion, coughs, colds, colic, constipation, cuts and abrasions, diarrhea, digestive disorders, dysentery, fevers, flatulence, headaches and migraines, indigestion, insect bites and stings, menstrual cramps, muscle tension, nerve pain, nervousness, sinusitis, sore throats, tiredness and lethargy.
When inhaled in steam, it relieves nasal congestion.
Basil seeds contains mild antibiotic substances that, when used as a poultice, helps prevent skin infections and promotes the healing of minor skin wounds. Basil is also used in some skin ointments and promoted as a treatment for acne.
The tea is said to be relaxing, and, when taken in the evening, helps to promote sleep.
Chewing a couple of leaves before a meal helps to stimulate the appetite; and a tea taken after a meal promotes digestion by increasing the flow of gastric juices, while reducing gas and bloating.
In Chinese medicine, basil is used for disturbances in renal function, gum ulcers, and as a hemostyptic both before and after birth.
In Ayurvedic medicine, the juice is recommended for snakebites; as a general tonic; and for chills, coughs, rheumatoid arthritis, anorexia, skin problems, amenorrhea and dysmenorrhea, malaria, and earaches, but mainly used in the cases of fever. A classic recipe advocates mixing Holy Basil, black pepper, ginger, and honey to prevent infection and to control high fevers.
Since Holy Basil has the ability to lower blood pressure, it is thought to have an affinity for the heart, as well as helping the body to adapt to new demands and stresses.
Holy Basil is used to reduce blood sugar levels as well as relieving fevers, bronchitis, asthma, stress, and canker sores. Research into its ability to reduce blood sugar levels has gone on for several decades, and is proving useful in some types of diabetes. Indian research has shown that the herb has anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and fever-reducing properties, as well as inhibiting sperm production.
In Belize, it is used to bring on delayed menstruation and to relieve painful periods, as well as to treat earaches.Elsewhere it is used as an anti-inflammatory, for stomach-aches, intestinal parasites, and to lower bloodsugar levels.
Mexicans use it to treat “susto”, or gastrointestinal blockage. It is also used to ward off evil spirits, and as a cleansing agent.