Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), called Tulasi or Tulsi (“incomparable one”) in Sanskrit, is a culinary herb with an ancient tradition rooted in ayurvedic medicine. A native of India, it is now cultivated all over the world. It produces a pleasant fragrance that is said to discourage mosquitoes and for this reason, this variety of basil is used by many gardeners as a patio plant.
In warm, tropical climates, it grows as a perennial, but in Europe and North America, the plant is considered a half-hardy annual. The plant appreciates full sun but will tolerate filtered light and partial shade. Like other basils, it requires well-drained soil and should be planted in the late spring to early summer when day- and night-time temperatures are not likely to dip below 50°F (10°C). Holy basil does well as a container plant and makes a lovely and unusual addition to the home herb or ornamental garden.
There are two varieties of holy basil: the milder white, or pale green, and the more assertively flavored red. The leaves and stems of the red plant have a reddish-purple cast. The leaves of both varieties are smaller than those of Mediterranean sweet basil and have serrated rather than smooth edges. The stems and leaves are lightly covered with little hairs.
Holy basil is sometimes referred to as “hot basil” or “pepper basil” because, unlike sweet or Thai basil, which have a flavor more reminiscent of licorice, this variety is spicy and more like cloves. Its flavor intensifies as it cooks, so most people prefer to eat it cooked rather than raw. In Thai cuisine, the herb is often matched with garlic, hot chilies, and fish sauce to flavor stir fries. It is not interchangeable with Western, or sweet, basil in most recipes that call for the latter.
Above and beyond its culinary uses, holy basil is considered one of the most sacred and important herbs in the Hindu and ayurvedic traditions. Also known as Tulasi, it is referred to in the Charaka Samhita, a fundamental text of ayurvedic medicine. It is valued for antibacterial, antifungal, and inti-inflammatory properties.
Holy basil is considered to be an adaptogenic herb, which means it is thought to help the body adapt to various forms of both physical and mental stress. There is some evidence that the plant is effective in lowering blood sugar, so scientific studies are examining its potential as an aid in treating diabetes.
This form of basil is traditionally made into remedies for headaches, heart disease, colds, asthma and bronchitis, gastrointestinal disorders, and inflammatory illnesses. It is also used to combat certain forms of poisoning as well as malaria and dengue fever. Medicinal compounds use the leaves and essential oil in several forms, including tea, powder, and fresh leaves.
Holy basil is regarded as purifying to both the mind and body, and it is considered an essential part of religious households in the Hindu tradition. Because this herb is considered to be not merely a medicinal or culinary herb but also a sacred herb, its care and maintenance is carefully attended to.