Basil – The King of Herbs

By Maryann Readal

Image of basil leavesBasil, Ocimum basilicum, still reigns today as the King of Herbs. Its royalty was established by the Greeks, when they gave the herb its name based on the Greek word basilikon, meaning “king.” Alexander the Great is said to have brought basil to the Greeks. According to legend, St. Helena, the Emperor Constantine’s mother, followed a trail of basil leading to the remains of Jesus’ cross (Lum, 2020). Since that time, basil has been considered a holy herb in Greece. Basil is used in the Greek Orthodox Church for sprinkling holy water, while some Greeks bring their basil to church to be blessed and then hang the sprigs in their home for health and prosperity (MyParea, n.d.). However, on the isle of Crete, basil somehow gained a bad reputation and was thought to be a symbol of the devil. There seems to be a thread of bad history associated with basil since early times.

Hindu man worshiping tulsi plantAlthough named by the Greeks, basil originated in India 5,000 years ago. In India today, the herb is considered a sacred herb. Holy basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum (also known as tulsi), is considered to be the manifestation of the goddess Tulasi, wife of Krishna. It is thought to have great spiritual and healing powers. According to legend, only one leaf of tulsi can outweigh Vishnu’s power. Every devout Hindu home will have a special place for a tulsi plant. It is believed that the creator god, Brahma, resides in its stems and branches, the river Ganges flows through the plant’s roots, the deities live in its leaves, and the most sacred of Hindu religious texts are in the top of holy basil’s branches (Simoons, 1998). Nurturing a tulsi plant ensures that a person’s sins will be forgiven and everlasting peace and joy will be had. (Simoons, 1998). The dried stems of old holy basil plants are used to make beads for Hindu meditation beads. Twentieth-century herbalist Maude Grieve said, “Every good Hindu goes to his rest with a basil leaf on his breast. This is his passport to heaven. It is indeed considered a powerful herb” (Grieve, 1931). 

Image of Egyptian embalmingFrom India, basil spread to Egypt, where the herb was used for embalming and has been found buried with the pharaohs. The herb then moved on to Rome and southern Europe, where the Romans fell in love with it. In Italy, basil was considered a sign of love. If young girls were seeking a suitor, they would place a pot of basil on their windowsill. If a potential suitor showed up with a sprig of basil, the girl would love him forever. 

Ocimum spp (16)Italy became the home of pesto, which basil has made famous. “Pesto was created by the people of Genoa to highlight the flavor of their famous basil. Using a mortar and pestle, they combined simple ingredients to make one of the world’s most famous pasta sauces” (Blackman, 2010). The simple sauce contains only basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, and parmigiano-reggiano cheese. Pesto is still a very popular sauce for pasta or crackers, especially in the summer, when fresh basil is plentiful.

During the Middle Ages, they believed that in order to get basil to grow, one had to curse and scream while planting the seed. This is the origin of the French verb semer le basilic (sowing basil), which means “to rant.” It was also thought that if you smelled basil too much, scorpions would enter your brain. Today, the French call basil l’herbe royale, “the royal herb,” and pots of it are found in outdoor restaurants, not to deter scorpions but to deter mosquitoes. Fresh basil leaves are used to make pistou, the French version of pesto.

Image of sign at garden center apologizing for not carrying basil due to downy mildewBasil, a sun-loving member of the mint family, is an annual herb that thrives in summer heat. In fact, it will languish if planted in the garden before temperatures reach a consistent 70 plus degrees. Frequent harvesting of the leaves before flowers appear prolongs its growing season. It can be propagated by seed or cuttings. However, it is very susceptible to downy mildew, which researchers are constantly trying to overcome by breeding more disease-resistant varieties. The new gene editing CRISPR technology may show a promising solution to this problem (Riccio, 2022).

There are more than 100 varieties of basil and counting! Some basils are grown as ornamental plants because of their beautiful blooms. In fact, the Chinese name for basil translates to “nine-level pagoda,” which is a good description of its blooming stalk. African blue basil and wild magic basil are two examples of basils with nice blooms that I have found are bee magnets during the summer. If you are interested in attracting pollinators, your garden should certainly have these basils. Cardinal basil, which shows off its large burgundy flower clusters in late summer, is spectacular in the summer garden. It can also be used as a culinary basil. Lemon basil and ‘Mrs. Burns’ lemon basil, both having a lemon scent, are perfect for adding to lemonade, fruit salad, or ice cream. Add cinnamon basil to cinnamon flavored desserts. The showy leaves of purple ruffles basil, O. basilicum ‘Purple Ruffles’, make a nice contrast among other plants in the summer garden. When cooking with basil, it should be added at the end of cooking.

Varieties of basilBasil is not usually considered a medicinal herb, but it was used medicinally in the time of Hippocrates who prescribed it as a tonic for the heart and to treat vomiting and constipation. Pliny the Elder commented that it was good for lethargy and fainting spells, headaches, flatulence, and other digestive issues (Pliny, 1855). China and India have a long history of using basil as a medicinal herb as well.

 Basil does contain a healthy amount of vitamins A, C, and K and has antioxidant and antibacterial properties, which helps fight disease. Studies show that it can help reduce blood clots by making the blood less “sticky.” Animal studies suggest that it might help slow the growth rate of some types of cancer (Todd, 2015).

A plate of brownies with cinnamon basilSo, do enjoy fresh basil this summer. Remember to dry some for the winter, freeze the leaves, or combine chopped leaves with water and freeze in an ice cube tray for later use. However, you should take careful consideration before putting basil on your windowsill lest you attract an unwanted suitor.

Basil is The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for June. 

References

Blackman, Vicki. 2010. Basil it’s not just for Italian food anymore. Texas Gardener. Vol. 29, Issue 2, p. 20-25.

Lum, Linda. (2020). Exploring basil: a simple plant with a complicated history. Accessed 5/16/22. https://delishably.com/spices-seasonings/All-About-Herbs-Basil

Matel, Kathy. 2016. History of basil. Accessed 5/15/22. https://catrinasgarden.com/history-basil/

MyParea. (n.d.) Basil in Greek culture. Accessed 5/15/22. https://blog.myparea.com/basil-greekculture/#:~:text=For%20ancient%20Greeks%2C%20basil%20was,used%20to%20sprinkle%20holy%20water

Pliny the Elder. 1855. The natural history. John Bostock, M.D. (ed.). London: Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855. Accessed 5/15/22. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0137:book=20:chapter=48&highlight=ocimum 

Riccio, Peggy. 2022. Breeding better herbs. The American Gardener. Vol. 101, No. 2, p. 30-34.

Simoons, Frederick. 1998. Plants of life, plants of death. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Todd, Kathy. 2015. Basil: King of herbs. Environmental Nutrition. Vol 38, Issue 7, p.8.

Yancy-Keller, Alexandra. 2020. History of basil. Accessed 5/15/22. https://www.nutrifitonline.com/blog/news/history-of-basil/

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

Photo Credits: 1) Basil leaves (Ocimum basilicum) (Maryann Readal); 2) Man worshipping tulsi basil (Wikimedia Commons, Shirsh.namaward); 3) Egyptian embalming (Catrina’s Garden, https://catrinasgarden.com/history-basil/); 4) Variegated basil leaves (Ocimum cv.) (Chrissy Moore); 5) Sign at garden center regarding basil and downy mildew (Maryann Readal); 6) Varieties of basil (US National Arboretum); 7) Plate of brownies made with cinnamon basil (Chrissy Moore).


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She lectures on herbs and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Growing Up with Betel Nut

By Shaila Gupte

04 Betel Nuts 610-46 VFBetel nut (pronounced bet′-al) palm trees (Areca catechu) are grown in different parts of India, as well as elsewhere in South Asia and in China. Still, the betel nuts grown in Konkan—the coastal region south of Mumbai—are widely considered among the best quality.

My family owns a very small plantation, which is overseen by my brother, about 120 miles south of Mumbai. The various crops include betel nut (Areca catechu), coconut (Cocos nucifera), hapus mango (Mangifera indica ‘Alphonso’), 01 Betel Nuts 538 VFjackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), pomelo (Citrus maxima), kokum (Garcinia indica), finger bananas (Musa acuminata Colla), soursop (Annona muricata), guava (Psidium guajav), chikoo (Manilkara zapota), various flowering shrubs, and vegetables. Out of all these, the major cash crop is betel nut, followed by coconut. In Konkan, a one-acre farm can support a family of four; vegetables and fruits grown on the farm are eaten, while extra items are sold. Grains and meat are purchased mostly with the money from the betel nut cash crop and also, to a much smaller extent, from coconut, fruits, and vegetables.

Betel trees can grow up to 50 feet in height and are slender and flexible, in contrast to coconut trees, which are very stout. The tree sprouts from a betel nut (with its green outer layer) planted about six inches deep in moist soil. The soil needs moisture until the first few leaves appear. The sapling is then transplanted to its permanent location in rows about 6 – 8 feet apart. After that, the soil needs to dry out between waterings. The most common and efficient irrigation is the drip system in which the water slowly soaks into the soil from soaker pipes at the base of the tree. The tree needs a year-round supply of water and grows best in full sun, though it can survive in partial shade. Usually, cow dung is 03 Betel Nuts 523 VFused as a fertilizer.

Betel nut fruits appear about 4 – 5 years after planting. Each fruit cycle takes about one year from when a small flower appears until the fruit is ready to harvest. When the fruit is ripe, the husk changes color to reddish brown. At that point, the fruit is cut off from the tree. Experienced betel tree climbers can bend the tree enough to jump from one tree to the other like monkeys. The ripe fruit is then dried in direct sunlight with the husk partially removed to speed drying. When completely dry, the fruit is “shucked,” leaving a hard tan colored nut the size of a walnut. The yield varies from 5 – 7 to 200 – 300 nuts per tree, depending on the tree’s age and growth conditions. In 2018, the wholesale price for the variety called “Shrivardan gota” was 200 – 300 rupees/kilo (about US $1.50-$2.50/lb). The price of betel nut has been dropping over the years as the production around the world increases.

Betel nut is eaten alone or in a paan. In most parts of India, paan is the most popular after-dinner mouth freshener. Paan is made with betel leaves from the Piper betle plant (closely related to black pepper, Piper nigrum), betel nut (Areca catechu), calcium hydroxide (slaked lime), catechu (an extract from acacia trees), cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, rose petal preserve, and other individualized ingredients. The betel nut contains the alkaloid arecoline, which is a habit forming substance similar to nicotine, with the side effect of cardiovascular constriction, among other health hazards. Paan5Despite this medical information, the belief is that eating paan helps digestion, especially after a heavy meal with meat. Some people put chewing tobacco in the paan for an extra kick. The saliva containing tobacco is not swallowed; it is spit out. (Note: Saliva causes a chemical reaction to take place between the betel leaf (Piper betle) and the lime, turning the saliva (and sometimes the consumer’s teeth) red. Because of this, one sees a lot of red colored street corners near the paan shops in India.) 

We had a shiny brass octagonal box for storing paan ingredients. My father ate 4 – 5 paans per day. My mother made paans for him in the morning and put them in a small silver box to take to work. When we were young, on Sundays after a heavy mid-day meal, we would buy paan from the paan shop with added ingredients to our liking, eat them, and stick our tongues out to see whose tongue was the reddest!

02 Shaila and Prakash with Betel Nuts 607 VFBetel nut is a sacred fruit for most Hindu religious ceremonies. It can substitute for deities or can be used as an offering. Some Hindu rituals are to be performed by a couple. In such cases, if the man doing the ritual is widowed, the betel nut can be used in place of the wife. Traditional wedding invitations are started by giving betel nut to the invitees. Paradoxically, betel nuts are also a symbol of a commitment for an evil deal between criminals.

Without a doubt, the betel nut contributes mightily to both commerce and religion in Maharashtra, the state in central India where Mumbai is located and where I am from.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Stefan Kaben Images, except paan (Media India Group).

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Shaila Gupte grew up in Mumbai, India. She came to the United States to study and now considers Maryland home. She is a gardening and greenhouse volunteer in the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and is a Master Gardener. When not at the Arboretum, she likes to grow vegetables of Indian origin.