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A Garden Witches’ Herbal: Basil


Garden Witch Photo

Garden Witch Photo

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

There are over 60 species of Basil (Ocimum spp.), which have various culinary and miscellaneous uses. Basil folklore is often contradictory, depending on which geographic or cultural information is consulted. Even the origin of the name of basil has been disputed since ancient times. The Greek word “baslikon” means “kingly” or “king” and basil is sometimes referred to as the “king of herbs.” The ancient Greeks believed that only the king could harvest basil from the royal garden. The French call basil “herbe royale,” while the Latin word “ocimum” is from the Greek, translated to “the sense of being able to enjoy the fragrance.” To illustrate the contradictions associated with basil, it is said to symbolize hatred, love, good wishes, warm friendship, wealth, poverty, and good luck.

European beliefs regarding basil provide it with both beneficent and sinister associations, while Eastern cultures consider basil as sacred, especially to Krishna and Vishnu. Hippocrates mentioned the use of basil for medicinal purposes, but other ancient Greeks believed that it had evil powers. The Greeks associated basil with hatred, misfortune, poverty, and mourning, calling it the “devil plant,” but also considered it a powerful love charm. The Greeks painted poverty as a ragged woman with basil at her side. Yet another interpretation is offered in Crete, where basil signifies “love washed with tears.”

In Italy, basil is a token of love. There are also old folktales that tell of scorpions resting in the shade of basil during the day and thus to beware, and today we can attribute this not to the properties of basil, but to the ideal growing conditions for the plant and preferred habitat for scorpions.

The ancient Egyptians used basil for burial, and it is still used today in India to prepare bodies, as a branch is laid on the corpse to ease its travel to the next life. Some cultures used basil in exorcism and purification rites, and believed that it protected against all forms of evil, bestowing the folk name “witches’ herb” upon it. In Haiti, basil is associated with the pagan goddess of love, Erzulie, and shopkeepers spray basil water to keep out evil spirits and attract customers and prosperity.

Europeans believed that basil seeds would not germinate “unless the gardener cursed vigorously while sowing them.” (Stuckey) The French have a term for this, “semer le basilic,” loosely translated as raving mad while sowing the basil. An explanation for this strange abuse of herbal seeds may be that the basil should be covered to twice its depth, otherwise the seeds will float away. Apparently the seeds were not only to have expletives shouted at them, they were also to be lightly stomped into the ground. Very strange. Garden lore does not record what sort of results these unusual methods produced.

Interestingly enough, although it is not native to North America, there are North American superstitions concerning basil also. In rural New Mexico, if basil is kept in your pocket, it is believed to bring money to you. It is also used by wives in rural New Mexico to cure their husband’s wandering eye and make him a loving, faithful partner. References do not indicate if this is related to the skilled use of basil in cooking or not (supposedly one way to a man’s heart is through cooking)!

Basil is native to Central Asia and is cultivated in Europe, Madagascar and India. It is an erect, tender annual herb, approximately 1-2 feet in height, having fleshy, shiny leaves up to 1 ¼” long with a clove-like scent. Basil needs hot weather to grow and is quite sensitive to cold, frost and cold drafts. It grows readily from seeds or cuttings, including cuttings placed in a glass of water on a sunny windowsill, where it will root within 5-10 days. Do not place basil plants into the ground or outdoor containers until the weather and soil are very warm (after the evenings are at least 65 degrees F). Basil requires full sun and moist soil and will become bitter if grown in dry conditions. To keep basil plants growing and prevent them from getting too leggy, pinch off the flower heads. If it is allowed to flower or set seed, this inhibits the leaf growth.

It is a good companion plant for tomatoes and peppers and seems to help them grow better. Basil works well as a houseplant and in outdoor containers and window boxes, especially when combined with chives, oregano, parsley, calendula, chervil, summer savory and dill. It attracts bees and butterflies and provides a pleasant scent in patio areas. Basil is a good plant to have right outside your kitchen door so that you have easy access to it for cooking.

The many different varieties of basil include Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum), having a clove-like flavor. It is one of the most familiar basils and is in demand for flavoring of commercial products, and much is grown in California.

Sweet Basil, Garden Witch Photo

Sweet Basil, Garden Witch Photo

Both Sweet Basil and Lettuce Leaf Basil (O. basilicum ‘Crispum’) are highly recommended for cooking pesto, freezing pesto, freezing in ice cubes for later use, and drying. Cinnamon Basil (O. basilicum ‘Cinnamon’) has a pleasant spicy cinnamon scent. Lemon Basil (O. basilicum ‘Citriodorum’), also known as Citron Basil, has a pleasant lemon/citrus scent and is used in cooking, especially in pea soup. Bush Basil (O. basilicum ‘Minimum’) and ‘Spicy Globe’ are more compact than other basils, growing into one foot scented miniature bushes, suitable for culinary gardeners that do not have much garden space, or to provide a scented herbal border. Another well-known basil is Purple or Opal Basil (O. basilicum ‘Purpurascens’), ‘Dark Opal,’ or ‘Purple Ruffles.’ The purplish-red leaves make an excellent basil vinegar that is easy and tasty to make.

Tulsi, or Sacred Basil

Tulsi, or Sacred Basil

Some basils are not used for culinary purposes at all. Tulsi, Holy or Sacred Basil (O. sanctum), native to Western Asia and Australia, is revered by Hindus and grown around temples and homes to protect the spirit of the family. It is also used as an insect repellant, antibiotic, and perfume fixative.

Camphor Basil (O. kilimandscharicum) is native to Africa, especially Kenya and is named for Mount Kilimanjaro. This basil is used medicinally as a tea to reduce fevers, and is thought to be antimalarial, keeping mosquitoes away. Camphor Basil may also be associated with the basilisk, a legendary lizard that was believed to kill with just a glance. The East Indian Basil (O. gratissimum) is grown around homes for mosquito control in India, Ceylon, Europe, and Brazil where it is perennial, and as an annual in France and North America.

Basil is used extensively in Mediterranean cooking. The fresh or dried leaves are used to season soups, egg and vegetable dishes, seafood, poultry, tomato sauces, meats, lamb, polenta, sausage, cheese dishes, wine and vinegars. It complements spaghetti sauces, minestrone soup and zucchini, and is wonderful sprinkled on salads and sliced tomatoes. Basil is the main ingredient in pesto, along with garlic, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. Dried basil and basil oil are used commercially for flavoring sauces, pickles, condiments, candy, beverages and meat products. The flavor of basil gets stronger with cooking, so it is best to start off with small quantities and season with taste.

Medicinally, basil makes an excellent herbal tea that helps with indigestion, cramps, stomach spasms, vomiting, constipation and general stomach/digestive problems. Basil can also help to prevent travel sickness. Basil oil is used in perfumes, soaps, dental preparations and potpourri mixes. It is also utilized as an antispasmodic and was sometimes used to treat whooping cough, head colds and headaches. A basil bath (of leaves and/or flowers added to a cotton bath bag) is invigorating, stimulating blood circulation and soothing overworked muscles. A liniment with basil, rose oil and vinegar relieves fatigue, inflammation and headaches. Basil is an insect repellant, and when added to the coals of an outdoor grill, will keep flies and mosquitoes away. It is also good to use as a moth repellant and as an antibacterial.

A note on the use of basil: it should not be used during pregnancy and should not be used on sensitive skin. However, it is still an interesting herb with many valuable uses.

For basil references and additional information, please refer to the Resources section of this site.

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