Ethnobotany: Holy Basil

Every year I try to grow a few things in my garden that I have never grown before. This year one of those things is holy basil. Not to be confused with the common culinary basil (Ocimum basilicum) – of which there are numerous horticultural varieties – holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) while closely related is a completely different species. Both species are native to South Asia. One of the main differences between the two is that O. basilicum is an annual and O. tenuiflorum is a short-lived perennial.

ocimum tenuiflorum

 Holy Basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum (photo credit: www.eol.org)

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 is a common ingredient in Thai food and has many medicinal uses. In India, it is often prescribed by Ayurvedic practitioners as a treatment for many things, including stress, fever, influenza, headaches, insomnia, and upset stomach. The leaves of this plant are used as a mosquito repellent, and oil derived from the seeds is being researched for it’s potential use in treating cancer. However, probably the most interesting thing about holy basil is its place in Hindu culture.

Holy basil is considered by Hindus to be the earthly incarnation of the goddess Tulsi who is a companion of the god Vishnu. Thus, tulsi is a common name for this plant in Asia. Tulsi is the most sacred of all plants in Hinduism, which is why it is commonly seen growing in special pots in the courtyards of Hindu homes. During ritualistic worship, tulsi leaves are offered to Vishnu and his avatars. Vaishnavas (followers of Vaishnavism, a major branch of Hinduism) make prayer beads from the stems and roots of tulsi plants. Wearing these prayer beads (called Tulsi malas) is said to connect one with the gods and bring their protection. Because tulsi is considered to be a manifestation of deity on earth, it is seen as a connection point to heaven, and so tulsi leaves are placed in the mouths of people who are dying in order to ensure a safe journey into celestial realms.

Hindus not only regularly use holy basil in ritualistic worship, they also regularly worship the plant itself. Daily worship of the tulsi plant is traditionally done by women. Worship can involve praying to the plant, chanting mantras, watering the plant, cleaning around the plant with water and cow dung, and offering it things like food, flowers, and water from the Ganges river. Even when not worshiping tulsi, simply caring for it daily is said to bring blessings from Vishnu.

holy basil

My holy basil. It doesn’t look like much now, but it has potential.

Learn more about holy basil and its ethnobotanical uses by visiting Kew and HinduNet.

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Rosemary Christmas Tree

In the spirit of the holiday season, consider this fun alternative to a conventional Christmas tree. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is an herbaceous, evergreen shrub or subshrub and is commonly found in herb gardens. Its leaves are valued for their myriad culinary and medicinal uses. Futhermore, this plant takes very kindly to pruning and shaping, which makes transforming it into a miniature Christmas tree a very simple task.

It may be too late to cultivate a “tree” for this year’s holiday season, but perhaps you’d like to try for next year. To do so, find a small rosemary plant at a local garden center or plant sale in the spring. Make a few initial pruning cuts to select a leader or leaders. After about a month or two, start giving it the shape of a Christmas tree. Floral scissors work great for making these cuts, and you don’t have to worry about where on the branches you are cutting – rosemary is very forgiving – just make sure your scissors are sharp. Wait a couple more months and then do more shaping with the pruning scissors. Do some final shaping a month or so later. At this point, you should be entering the holiday season and your rosemary Christmas tree will be ready to display. It’s that simple!

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Initial pruning: selecting the leaders

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Second pruning: giving it shape

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Third pruning: keeping in shape

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Final pruning: clean it up and present it  

One major downside to growing rosemary if you live in a cold climate is that it is only hardy to about USDA zone 7. However, if you select the right cultivar, place it in a protected location (near the south facing wall of a building perhaps), give it some mulch and maybe a blanket for the winter, you might be able to get it to survive in colder zones. Rosemary can also be difficult to overwinter indoors because the air in homes is typically dry and warm and there is little direct sunlight. If you are determined to keep one alive despite your odds, awaytogarden.com provides an excellent tutorial about overwintering rosemary both indoors and out.