Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Holy Basil - Herb of the Week

In keeping with my summer tradition of what herb is in my face this week and sharing about it, I have chosen Holy Basil.

We had an odd turn of the weather at the end of May.  We had days that were in the high 90s, then suddenly it turned chilly and windy.  I paid attention only to the temperatures which were to be in the low 50s, not at all thinking about the unseasonable winds which created a wind chill in the 40s and below.

I had planted out all my basil seedlings, including my Holy Basil seedlings on Memorial Day weekend.  The wind frosted them (basil does not really like temps in the 40s especially when young and tender.)  I tried to nurture them back to health and although I rescued the purple basil and the sweet basil, the lemon basil and the Holy basil eventually all died.  This week I bought replacement plants from a local nursery - Hacker's Glen Bard Gardens in Lombard, IL.

So this week's Herb of the Week is Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum)
It is known as Tulsi by many who grow it, which is the Hindu name for it.  I refer to it that way most of the time to keep people from confusing it with culinary Basil.  This plant is entirely different.
Holy Basil has a long tradition of use in Ayurvedic medicine (which is becoming very popular in the US currently) and is a well-known sacred plant of the Indian subcontinent. Holy Basil has been called the “Queen of Herbs” and “The Elixir of Life.”   Holy Basil is also considered an Adaptogen or adaptogenic herb.
In new herbal medicinal thought there is a focus on adaptogens which have the unique ability to switch from stimulating to sedating effects based on the body’s needs – thus correcting dysfunctions and producing a biological state of balance. One example would be Panax ginseng which can either raise or lower blood pressure depending on the circumstances. Adaptogens also produce an increase in the power of resistance against multiple (physical, chemical or environmental) stressors. Simply put, adaptogens help the body adapt to stress, support normal functions and restore balance. 
Holy Basil seedlings
This concept of balance through herbal tonics is ancient, having been practiced for generations, especially in India and China.
There are three varieties of Holy Basil, Krishna, Rama and Vana.  Krishna is a red Holy Basil, the other two are green.  The flowers of Rama are purple/pink while Vana has a while flower.
These are my three plants but I do not know if they are Vana or Rama because all three varieties tend to have the same hairy stem and deeply veined slightly pointed leaves.  Rama tends to have a darker stem, so these may be Rama but it is too soon to tell.  They look like basil when you look at them but no not have the same shiny quality to the leaves that Sweet, Lemon and Red Rubin Basil tend to have, instead the leaves are more of a matte color.
The scent is camphor-like and the flavor has a hint of mint in the background.  It is difficult to explain the taste.  It is a cross between chickweed, nettles and lemon balm to me, but others have described it differently.  I think each variety has its own unique flavor.  Suffice it to say it in no way tastes like culinary basil and I am not in the least temped to make pesto out of it.
It does dry easily (unlike other basils) and works well in herbal teas, especially those for stress reduction and relaxation.  Holy Basil has the ability to calm the mind and promote restful sleep, as well as increase energy and vitality (see how it can be two things in one?)
I started growing it because the herb is said to help lower bad cholesterol which I seem to have in abundance even though my cholesterol numbers are not bad at all.  I will let you know if this crop does better than the crop I grew from seed.
As with all herbs it is not a perfect herb and it does have side effects.  It can thin the blood, which for me is wonderful, but for those already taking blood thinners, you might want to speak with a doctor.  It can lower blood sugar, which can be beneficial to some, but not those which chronic low blood sugars as this can make things worse.  Again if you have diabetes or hypoglycemia, consult a doctor. As is recommended for many herbs it is not recommended for women who are pregnant, nursing or trying to become pregnant.
It actually has its own website

Here is a tea recipe you can use Holy Basil in.

1 Tbls. Bergamot (Bee Balm)
1/2 Tbls. Holy Basil (any variety)
1/2 Tbls. Lemon Balm
1/2 Tbls lavender flowers

Mix together and store in an air-tight container.  To make tea use 1 heaping tsp. per cup of hot water and let steep 5 to 10 minutes depending on your tastes.

We use Holy Basil to make our Green Chai Basil Tea (scroll to the bottom of the website page to find it) and hope to add a Holy basil curative tea to our offerings this fall.  We will see how the harvest of these plants goes.

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