Holy Basil: The Sacred Herb

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Holy basil or “Tulsi” has been medicine in India for nearly 3000 years. Over this period, Indians have grown it in their gardens and temples and it is considered the most sacred plant in Hinduism.

The plant plays a major role in Hindu mythology as it is supposed to be the incarnation of a goddess named Tulsi. This type of basil is indigenous to the subcontinent, though it has spread across southern India and Southeast Asia. It has been found as far away as Greece.

When the English colonized India, they would make the non-Christian Indians swear on holy basil in court rather than on the Bible. The Indians also believed that washing the dead in basil water would ensure their entrance into heaven.

It is important to note that much of what is currently sold as holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) is actually the Mediterranean basil commonly used as a culinary herb (Ocimum basilicum). The two belong to the labiatae family, which makes them mints.

Flavor profile of holy basil

Holy basil leaves are highly aromatic and have a peppery bite with notes of clove. Referred to as “hot basil” by Thai cooks, holy basil is not as sweet as the basil used in the west. The herb also releases its fragrance and flavor fully only when it is cooked, not when eaten raw.

Health benefits of holy basil

Holy basil contains various health-boosting compounds, including:

  • Vitamins: Holy basil is an excellent source of vitamins K, A, and C. Vitamin K is a fat-soluble nutrient that your body needs for blood clotting and for building healthy bones and teeth. Your body needs vitamin A to maintain eyesight and to help organs like your heart, lungs, and kidneys function correctly. Vitamin C is valuable for keeping tissues like skin, cartilage, and ligaments healthy. Your body also uses vitamin C to heal wounds and maintain bones and teeth.
  • Minerals: Minerals in holy basil include magnesium, calcium, and iron. Your body utilizes magnesium in more than 300 biochemical reactions, including those needed to keep bones strong and to ensure a steady heartbeat. Calcium is a key factor in healthy bones and teeth while the iron is used to make red blood cells.
  • Phytochemical compounds: Holy basil contains compounds like ursolic acid, an antioxidant. Scientists believe ursolic acid to be important for the regulation of cell growth. Other important phytochemicals in holy basil include rosmarinic acid, which is also an antioxidant and believed to be important for neuroprotection.

You can use holy basil to treat or prevent conditions like:

  • Fever: Because the phytochemicals in holy basil have antibiotic and germicidal properties, they can protect your body from various infections. In most cases, fevers result from the body attempting to fight off infections. The phytochemicals in holy basil can help to eliminate the pathogens, thus relieving the fever.
  • Respiratory ailments: The antibiotic effects of the phytochemicals combined with their decongestant benefits can help to relieve respiratory problems ranging from bronchitis to asthma.
  • Heart disease: Vitamin A in holy basil can help to prevent the oxidation of cholesterol in the bloodstream that may lead to heart disease and stroke. Magnesium helps to improve blood flow and maintain the heart’s rhythm.

Common uses for holy basil

Holy basil is popular in Thai cooking and shows up in dishes like drunken stir-fry where cooks combine it with ingredients like fish sauce and garlic. You can also use it exactly as you would Mediterranean basil; it works well in pasta sauces and stews.