A sweet surprise

There’s a footnote to add to my recent posts on the raised beds… Not so long ago, I bemoaned the fact that we don’t have any sweet basil. This is an oversight on my part of unimaginable consequence: For us, as a family, to have to eat our pasta senza basilico is a most terrible deprivation. It feels like an absolute howler to offer anyone spaghetti, penne or fusilli without the addition of that most aromatic and beautiful of summer herbs straight from the beds outside.

Then: “Ecco!” As I removed some bedraggled chicory (Italian, as it happens!) there emerged a small, jewel-like plant, slightly nibbled by snails but nonetheless -incontrovertibly – a baby sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum.

Sweet basil 6.17I pressed a leaf gently between finger and thumb just to be sure – but the look of those lovely, slightly glossy and distinctively fresh, green leaves gave it away before I had smelled the oils.

I breathed a profound sigh of relief: We may yet be able to rescue our pasta dishes this summer.

What has happened with our basil plants is an interesting exercise in nature taking over. It’s not as if we don’t have the plants in the garden, most of them propagated from cuttings from one or two plants I bought at local nurseries. These are not O. basilicum in its sweet form, although they may be varieties of the species that I can’t identify. Some may be different species, possibly O. tenuiflorum, or holy basil, although I have my doubts about that.

In the raised beds, the basil should be the direct descendants of plants grown from seeds of sweet basil brought from the UK. But evidently all the plants – except for this one – have cross-bred. As a result, this year’s seedlings have lost the sweetness and emerged in much more pungent form, with a touch of anise. Not what we want on our pasta!

A similar thing has happened with our oregano (Origanum vulgare). It appears to have hybridised with locally-sourced  O. majorana, so the delicately flavoured herb I once had in RB4 has become O. x majoricum with a more strident taste.

All this variety in herbs makes for fascinating experimentation in the field, unscientific as it is (i.e. uncontrolled). It goes like this, kind of:

flowers + bees = new plant varieties, every season.

Meanwhile, my tastebuds are revelling in tulsi tea, made from the leaves of yet more basil plants. Very popular in India, where O. tenuiflorum/sanctum is called holy tulsi, this tea comes not from the raised beds but from the Pukka company, and is obtainable in London. As if to underline the astonishing variety in the basil world, the tea comprises Green Rama and purple Krishna tulsi, with a splash of lemon Vana tulsi, thereby also showing the illustrious nature of the herb in the Indian tradition. It’s a real tonic to the health.

For more on holy basil, see also:  Basil’s hidden secrets

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.
Tulsi 7.16
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.
Basil and toms 7.16I 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.