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Holy basil has been cherished throughout India for thousands of years. Ayurvedic texts describe holy basil as a pillar of holistic herbal medicine and a goddess incarnated in plant form. Many traditional Hindus worship an altar bearing a holy basil plant that is placed in the courtyard of their home or in another prominent location. Today holy basil remains one of the most cherished of India’s sacred plants.
The genus Ocimum contains more than 150 species. Rama holy basil is the most common type of holy basil which is grown in India. Also called tulsi, Ocimum tenuiflorum, is a member of the mint family and features a purple stem with opposite leaves and racemes of white-to-purplish blossoms. Rama tulsi is known for its cooling and mellow flavor and is used as a culinary spice as well as for its healthful qualities. Native to tropical Asia, this aromatic plant is cultivated throughout the Indian plains, as well as in private homes and gardens. Holy basil is a perennial shrub in warmer climates but an annual in cooler habitats.
Holy basil is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), which means that it has square stems and oppositely arranged leaves and branches. It is a highly aromatic subshrub that reaches about 3 feet tall and has hairy stems and green and purple leaves. The flowers of holy basil are white/purple and tightly arranged in a long raceme. While it is a perennial in its native range, it is not hardy in more temperate climates.
Holy basil’s native range is located in a tropical region, so maintaining an average temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit is necessary if you want the plant to survive outdoors. If your local temperature is above this year-round, holy basil will act as a perennial.
In cooler hardiness zones, this plant will be annual unless you plant it in a container and move it indoors in the colder months. The USDA recommends holy basil will do well in USDA zones 10b to 11, but you can grow it indoors in any zone.
Giving holy basil plenty of sunlight will ensure large healthy leaves. This plant will tolerate some shade, but anything more than dappled shade and you will notice a decline. Though holy basil does grow quite well in most soils, it takes minimal effort to thrive. The ideal soil type is light and airy but rich at the same time. A silty loam is a good choice because it retains some moisture but drains well. Soaking wet soil is problematic, so if soil drainage is an issue, you can amend the soil with perlite to promote drainage. Keeping the soil moist but not drenched and soggy is the key to growing healthy and abundant holy basil.
Tulsi has a long history of medicinal use, and is mentioned in the oldest ancient Sanskrit Ayurvedic text-Charak Samhita (written perhaps 6000 BC and complied approximately 400 CE). Tulsi is also mentioned in the Rigveda (Book of Eternal Knowledge), thought to have been written around 5000 BC.
Tulsi was recognized thousands of years ago by the ancient rishis to be one of India’s greatest healing herbs. They saw that this herb is so good for health and healing that they declared that it was God herself. Where most herbs are used for two or three diseases, Tulsi is recommended for hundreds of serious disorders and is actually highly recommended as daily prophylactic to prevent disease. It is so readily found, now even in the West, that one of its names is Sulabha, ‘the easily obtainable one.’
Referred to as the “Queen of Herbs” and “the Incomparable One” in Ayurveda, holy basil has been revered for its energetics and health promoting qualities for millennia. Tulsi has been a foundational herb not only in Ayurveda but in Siddha, Unani, and Indian folk medicine practices as well. The herb is considered energetically warming with a sweet and pungent taste. In Ayurveda, holy basil is often employed as a nervine, adaptogen, and daily tonic. Holy basil is also known to support immune health.
Holy basil extract has a comparatively mellow flavor and is aromatic. The liquid extract is often used in formulations and blends well with maca extract, ashwagandha extract, and oats extract. Additionally, the tincture can be taken in water, juice, or squirted into herbal teas such as echinacea and elder tea. Holy basil tincture is a convenient ally for on the go support throughout the seasons.
It is considered a symbol of fidelity and helpful in attaining spiritual enlightenment. It has been used to support a healthy response to stress, maintain blood sugar levels within a normal range, promote longevity, nourish the mind and elevate the spirit. Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) exhibits impressive adaptogenic activity. Helping the body adapt to stresses of various kinds, this plant has a normalizing, broad-spectrum action that maintain homeostasis.
O. sanctum is cultivated for medical and religious purposes and for its essential oil. In particular, it has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine for various types of healing. O. sanctum is considered an adaptogen, balancing the processes of the body and allowing it to adapt to stressful situations. It is regarded as an elixir of life and is believed to promote longevity. The seeds are sometimes worn on the body as charms in order to bring balance and longevity (Voogelbreinder 2009, 249).
In India, O. sanctum is said to represent Vishnupriya, the consort of Vishnu, and is the embodiment of the goddess Lakshmi. Therefore, it is seen as a link between the domestic and spiritual worlds. Holy basil is celebrated in the Rig Veda and the Puranas, as well as the ancient Ayurvedic text, the Charaka Samhita. In much of Asia, O. sanctum is chewed as a substitute for betel quids, and it is even used in Thai cooking, imparting a powerful, astringent flavor.