Basil is an aromatic annual that reaches about two feet tall, looks like its relatives, the mint family, only with more branches and which blossoms white or purple in summer. It will grow easily from seed in well drained and composted soil and should be planted after the frosts have been. Basil’s big advantage especially to the new herbal gardener is that it will grow well in a pot on the kitchen window, given light and water and even the most absent minded of us, and that includes me, will have a hard job killing this one. It is a very generous plant and once established, straight away if you buy one from the garden centre or supermarket, will allow you to pick leaves for use on a regular basis, either to use fresh or to dry for later uses.
Most people know Basil as the main ingredient in Pesto, and its pungent aroma and vivid colour will be familiar to most kitchen friendly people, but Basil has a very interesting history as well. Its current popularity is surprising considering the reputation it has had through the years. Greeks and Romans regarded the herb as a symbol of hostility and insanity and they believed that to grow truly fragrant Basil plants one had to swear and shout angrily whilst sowing the seeds. Even today there is a saying in french that literally means “sowing basil” (semer le basilic) but its day to day meaning is to rant or shout. Later it acquired a better reputation and Italian women would place a pot of Basil on the window ledge to signify that they were ready to receive a potential suitor. In northern Europe lovers would exchange sprigs of basil as a sign of faithfulness. In India the native species, called holy basil, was sacred to Vishnu and Krishna and was seen to be a protective force. In Haiti even today shopkeepers have a tradition of sprinkling basil water around their stores to ward off evil spirits.
In healing circles it has had an equally chequered history. Greek physician Dioscorides and the Roman doctor Galens both warned against the use of basil as they believed that it not only cause insanity but caused the spontaneous generation of internal worms! Arab doctors 1000 years later were more supportive towards basil, and like their Chinese counter parts saw it as a great cure for stomach, kidney and blood problems. German abbess Hildegard of Bingen in the eleventh century used it as the main ingredient in an arcane mixture that also included the unsavoury “powder from a vultures beak” which she used to cure cancerous tumours. By the seventeenth century Basil was seen as a good all round cure for ironically worms as well as warts and colds, and then disaster struck this great and gentle herb. The French botanist Tournefort published the following tale which greatly tarnished the herbs reputation.
“a certain gentleman of Sienna, being wonderfully taken and delighted with the smell of basil, was wont very frequently to take the powder of the dry herb, and snuff it up his nose: but in short time he’d turned mad and died, and his head being opened by surgeons, there was found a nest of scorpions in his brain.”
As the years passed and the scorpion story faded Basil became associated with almost every known ailment and also as a much regarded cooking ingredient. Although many of the uses are a bit far fetched, like the use in El Salvador of putting it in the ear to cure deafness, it does have many uses. Oil of Basil does kill intestinal parasites thus lending credence to its oldest healing associations. Care should be taken when using oil extracts due to the high concentration of the dosage, check with a doctor or qualified alternative practitioner before starting a course of any oil extract as a cure. Basil is also seen to have an affect on acne, as it kills the bacteria that causes it, this is applied as an oil extract to the skin and the above warning is to be heeded. Its use against bacteria and worms is due to its positive effect on the immune system and as a general addition to the diet there is a lot to be gained.
The mystical associations with Basil relate to courage in the face of death, both real and symbolic and in this later way is used as an emblem at initiations, representing the spiritual death and rebirth of a person. One nice little folk tale is Basil being used as a divination to predict whether a relationship will work out. Two sprigs of fresh basil are placed on the edge of a fire, if they burn quickly the relationship will be harmonious, if they cackle and spit and burn slowly, the couple will have arguments, if the sprigs pop and jump apart the lovers are doomed.
Whether you grow Basil to use in cooking, great on Italian foods, cheese and in salads, or for use in healing a pot of this on the kitchen window will not only brighten up the room but will give you a natural and pungent air freshener, just brush your hand through the plant every now and then and smell the difference, those cooking smells will be buried under a canopy of mediterranean aromas. A great herb for beginners as its so easy to maintain and has so many uses.