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Have you taken your Holy basil today?

This question is often posed to me by a friend and fellow Holy basil enthusiast because she has experienced the wondrous effects of this marvelous herb firsthand and can see when I could use some of those myself. Indeed, Holy basil has become one of my most favored medicinal herbs due not only to its important effects on my body's health, but also due to its ability to lift my spirits. Steeped in cultural lore and replete with medicinal applications, it's not hard to understand why this plant is called holy. True to its Sanskrit name, Tulsi, meaning "incomparable," this herb is simply that.

A member of the mint family, Holy basil, (Ocimum sanctum), is one of at least fifty species and varieties of basil. It is an upright, shrubby, annual branched herb that typically grows to be a little over a foot and a haft tall. The leaves are rounded and covered with tiny hairs, and its long flowers are purplish or red. The plant has a strong, spicy, sweet fragrance, reminiscent of clove--a fragrance attributed to its high eugenol content. The plant is native to parts of Asia and Australia, but grows well in many parts of the world, including right here in the Southeast.

What seems foremost in the story of Holy basil, or Tulsi, is that it is esteemed as the most sacred plant in the Hindu religion. According to Plant Cultures, an organization dedicated to telling the stories of plants and people Tulsi has been cultivated in India for several thousand years and is said to be found in or near almost every Hindi house and temple throughout India. Its cultural mythology and medicinal uses are intricately linked. The plant is believed to offer protection from harm and guidance to heaven, and it represents purity, serenity, harmony, fortune, happiness, and health. Traditionally, the plant's leaves and flowers are added to bath water or a bowl of water at the entrance of a home for guests to clean their hands in when they arrive. A holy basil plant often occupies a central location in the home, and many Indian women are said to begin the day by offering blessed water to the plant to promote the well-being of the household.

Several stories surround the Tulsi plant in Hindu mythology. One tells of the plant as the transformed nymph Tulasi, the beloved of the Hindu deity Krishna. Another says that it represents the embodiment of the goddess Lakshmi, who was the spouse of Vishnu. Many Hindu ceremonies, including weddings and funerals, are said to involve holy basil leaves, and using the leaves is presumed to make offerings to all the Hindu deities complete. The marriage season in India is traditionally launched with festivals celebrating holy basil. Some malas, or Hindu rosary beads, are even carved out of the plant's stem or seed material.

Tulsi has long been used to support a healthy response to stress, maintain blood sugar levels, promote longevity, nourish the mind, and elevate the spirit. The list of medicinal properties attributed to this plant is extraordinary. Revered by Ayurvedic practitioners as "the incomparable one," holy basil has traditionally been used in this ancient system of health and well-being to treat skin conditions, snake bites, ear aches, fevers, coughs, bronchitis, and diabetes. Today, Ayurvedic practitioners and many others use holy basil for a wide variety of applications. Holy basil contains several constituent compounds that are thought to generate the multitude of healing actions associated with this herb. These compounds include eugenol, camphor, caryophyllene, ursolic acid, rosmarinic acid, luteolin, and apigenin. Many of its primary uses stem from the herb's ability to reduce negative effects of stress in the body and the mind. According to many reports (1), holy basil acts by lowering cortisol production in the adrenal glands and as such, helps reduce fat around the lower abdomen. Tulsi can even help us cope with the stress that the constant bombardment of noise and other sensory stimulation can cause the nervous system. In addition, holy basil has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, help maintain normal blood sugar levels, and help the mind stay focused, among many other things. Did I mention it has been shown to help lower the bad and increase the good cholesterol, and help the body cleanse and protect against mercury toxicity? This plant is clearly used for many applications, not the least of which is its uncanny power to promote feelings of joy and contentment.

As always, talk with a trained herbalist or health care practitioner to find out if this herb may be right for you. Recommended dosage of Holy basil will depend on the particular manufacturer's method of extraction and standardization, so it is always important to use herbs with respect and according to the dosage recommended on the bottle. I have found that this herb is not recommended for use during pregnancy or lactation. In your own research, you will likely find that many herbal educators and manufacturers offer information on the World Wide Web, including published research.

To grow Holy basil in this region, gardeners are advised to use the same production guidelines that are used for other basil species typically grown in this region, sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) being the typical favorite. According to Dr. Jeanine Davis of NC State University, basils do best in a well-drained soil with a pH of between 4.3 and 8.2, with long days in full sun. Basil can be direct seeded or transplanted to the field in late spring or summer. Because basil is very susceptible to frost damage, it is important to wait until after all danger of frost has passed to put your seeds or plants in the garden. Basil seeds are small, so they should be planted fairly shallowly. Expect to see basil coming up anywhere from eight to fourteen days after seeding. The plants may seem to take off slowly, but once they've established a few sets of leaves, growth typically speeds up. If growing seedlings in a greenhouse to transplant to the garden later, those transplants will generally be ready four to six weeks after seeding. Plants will do best in the raised-bed garden if they are spaced at least a foot apart from each other, in rows a foot apart from each other. Once the plants reach roughly a foot in height, gardeners may promote more leaf growth by pinching out or cutting off the tops of the plants. Treat the basil plants with a steady supply of water.

In this region, if you want large supplies of leaves at one time, harvest by cutting off the entire top growth of the plant, to about four inches above the ground. Done this way, you may expect one or two cuttings per growing season. But if you like a steady supply of basil all season, just pinch out clusters of leaves on the ends of the stems, leaving little buds in the leaf axils to grow and quickly produce new leaves. You'll be well on your way to enjoying the many wonders of this sacred medicinal plant!


For information on Tulsi's cultural history and mythology

For information on Tulsi's medicinal uses (includes links to published research on Holy basil's efficacy, both human and animal studies)

For information on recommended dosage LaValle, James B., R.Ph., C.C.N. "Stress: The Hidden Factor For Weight Gain." Nutrition Science Journal. April 2001. (He recommends 400 mg daily standardized to one percent ursolic acid/dose (one capsule, two times a day between meals (two to four capsules, two times a day or three to five cups of tea/day


(1) April 2001 Nutrition Science Hews, and links from this site to published research,, and

Libby Hinsley works with North Carolina farmers transitioning into medicinal herb production as the Assistant Project Coordinator for the Medicinal Herbs for Commerce Project at NC State University. She also teaches yoga in the Asheville area. You can reach her at
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Title Annotation:DEPT.> herbal healing
Author:Hinsley, Libby
Publication:New Life Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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