Characteristics, History of Basil
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Vij
Posted on: January 27, 1999

Please tell me some of characteristics of the herb basil. I’m doing a project. I have to have the source, history, uses.

The "king of herbs" is among the most popular herbs we sell. Perhaps because of its versatility in the kitchen, or more likely because of its religious significance, basil’s royal pedigree is well established. It has great affinity for tomatoes, as well as for fish and egg dishes, and rarely seems out of place in most savoury dishes. A large measure of its popularity is because of the recent surge of interest in pesto made with basil (although other herbs can substitute for basil in pesto).

According to the Herb Companion Cooks cookbook, basil’s flavour can be described as "orange peel and sage". The fresh or dried leaves go with meat, poultry, fish, soups, stews, eggs and cheese, vegetables, salads, and of course, as pesto in pasta.

Basil is one of those herbs that can be used liberally in most dishes without much danger of overwhelming the tastebuds.

Should witches plague you, basil is the perfect antidote. Basil, especially the sacred variety, Ocimum sanctum, known as "tulsi" in the Hundi language, is frequently planted around temples in India for protection.

There are many varieties of basil. In the last two or three decades all manner of basils with different scents and flavours, and with differing leaf shape, colour and growth habit have been introduced to the market -- so many varieties that there is now a helpful guidebook to the basils and how to grow and use them called "Basil: An Herb Lover’s Guide" by Tom Debaggio and Susan Belsinger (available from Richters).

Basils are found growing wild on at least three continents. In West Africa where I visited several years ago I was thrilled to find four distinct basils growing almost side by side, each managing to remain racially pure despite basil’s reknowned proclivity for cross pollination. In India basil is revered as a sacred plant, a reputation with a likely germ of basis from its medicinal properties. In Southeast Asia, in Thai and Vietnamese cooking, several varieties of basil are grown and used fresh-cut in soups and stews. In the Western Hemisphere, the mosquito repelling cinnamon basil in Mexico and the peruvian basil in South America and the Caribbean are sometimes seen on dining tables in fresh herb arrangements.

The common sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum, is considered antispasmodic, appetizer, carminative, galactagogue, stomachic according to herbalist John Lust. It is beneficial for stomach cramps, gastric and intestinal catarrh, vomiting, and constipation.

Basil is among the easiest of herbs to grow. The common sweet types, Ocimum basilicum and cultivars, grow from seeds readily although seedlings are susceptible to damping off disease. Not all basils can be grown from seeds; some of the newer varieties are propagated by cuttings only.

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