Basil’s hidden secrets
I have always had an affinity for basil. It’s a curious thing, but certain plants draw me to them, perhaps for their perfume, or the colour and form of their blooms, or perhaps simply for the unbounded exuberance of their bright green, fresh foliage, so full of vitality that I just can’t resist it. I think, with basil, that last point is the key.
Now, by a curious twist of fortune, I find myself being treated with basil as a homeopathic remedy. And as I delve into the nature of the plant, I have come to realise that it is packed with so many nutrients and compounds of potential value in treating illness and promoting health as to be counted a treasure.
Indians have always known this. Tulsi, Ocimum sanctum Linn. (or O. tenuiflorum) has been regarded as a sacred plant for thousand of years. Mentioned in Ayurvedic texts, it was used as an adaptogen to balance the many processes in the body, and to promote vitality; as a treatment for malaria, different forms of poisoning, inflammation, heart disease, stomach disorders, and colds and coughs. In my case, it has been prescribed for a severe attack of bronchitis with asthma that went on for months earlier this year, and severely curtailed my capacity to look after the garden. So my beloved basil is rallying to support my health in a way I would never have anticipated.
This is not sweet basil (O. basilicum), a close relative much used in Italian food from a garnish for pizzas to pesto sauce for pasta. It is a stronger, perennial herb growing up to 2 meters tall, with strongly aromatic elliptical leaves and elongate racemes of usually white flowers. One species has bright green stems and leaves (“Rama” or Bright Tulsi) while another, with dark green or purple leaves and stems, is known as “Shyama” or dark Tulsi.
I am pretty sure that what I have previously referred to as “Egyptian basil” could well be O. sanctum, and – if it is – then we have several wonderful specimens growing right here in the Jasmime Garden, including one several years old that is taller than I am:
There are plenty more, all cultivated from cuttings taken from one or two mother plants brought in when we began to cultivate the land.
Almost continually in bloom throughout the year, the basil is a magnet for insects of all kinds, especially the bees from the rooftop hives, and including many moths and butterflies. They, in turn, attract birds to the garden, so establishing a virtuous circle with the basil at the centre.
This fits well with the sacred plant’s reputation. Deeply revered among Hindus, it is often to be found at the centre of domestic gardens in India, carefully tended and watered (usually by the women of the household). Its wood is used for rosaries or japa malas or Tulsi malas. I regret to say that I have used its stems and branches as supports for the mange tout, but I may rethink: it seems somehow disrespectful.
What is utterly fascinating, however, is the vast array of compounds and chemicals hidden inside the leaves, stems and flowers of this remarkable plant. Among them are eugenol and eugenic acid, urosolic acid, linalool, caryophyllene and estragol; saponins, flavonoids and tannins; and fatty acids and sitosterol, depending on which part of the plant is under examination. Up to now we have just scratched the surface of the substances available and how they work, usually in combination, to treat illnesses and conditions from diabetes and eczema to peptic ulcers and even certain types of cancer.
O. sanctum also has its uses in agro-homeopathy, and in natural treatments for agricultural uses. It is effective against a fungal condition affecting rice and as a deterrent against the root knot nematode. Companion planting benefits tomatoes, I have read; oddly enough, again as if by instinct, I have it growing in three of our five raised beds, often in close proximity to the cherry tomato vines.
I wouldn’t say that O. sanctum is the tidiest or most graceful of plants in the garden. It has a tendency to be leggy and ungainly, with spindly racemes of flowers and seeds blowing around in the wind, and a carpet of flotsam on the ground beneath it. But it is one of nature’s undoubted wonders and I absolutely treasure it in my garden.