Holy Basil: The Zen Herb

Flavorful and medicinal, this unique basil is loved by gardeners and herbalists all over the world.

  • Holy basil (tulsi) hails from India, where pots of the fragrant herb grace sacred temples.
    Photo by iStock/bigapple
  • ‘Krishna’ is the favored holy basil in India for medicine.
    Photo by Noelle Fuller
  • 'Rama' is one of the harder holy basil cultivars to germinate and grow at home.
    Photo by Noelle Fuller
  • 'Amrita' holy basil is higher in essential oils than some other cultivars, but is harder to germinate and grow.
    Photo by Noelle Fuller
  • 'Kapoor' flowers profusely and is the most likely holy basil cultivar to self-seed.
    Photo by Noelle Fuller

As you pore over seed catalogs and do drive-by seedling snatches this spring, consider adding a new herb to your garden: holy basil (Ocimum sanctum, synonym O. tenuiflorum), which is also commonly called tulsi or sacred basil. This basil with benefits hails from India, where pots of the fragrant herb grace sacred temples. In the past decade or two, tulsi has infiltrated the American herbal lexicon and dietary supplement shelves, quickly becoming a favorite among herbalists and gardeners alike.

Medicinal Benefits

All species of basil offer anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and digestion- and cognition-enhancing properties (who knew pesto could do all that?), but holy basil takes it a step further than common garden basils. Holy basil’s clove- and mint-like fragrance pulls people into a relaxing, Zen state. Most famously, tulsi acts as an adaptogenic herb, helping the body adapt to stress and find deep reserves of energy. Holy basil is the easiest of all adaptogens to grow and harvest in abundance, and its ability to both calm and energize makes it appropriate for almost anyone.

Holy basil specifically balances cortisol, a stress hormone that increases blood sugar. This benefit makes it useful as a hypoglycemic aid for people whose blood sugar and food cravings wobble with stress. Having holy basil with a meal or lightly sweetened with honey can help prevent hypoglycemia. That said, people taking medicine for diabetes or who are prone to hypoglycemia should monitor their holy basil intake closely and consult with a physician before making any big changes.

Holy basil is also considered a “great protector” and is used in India to fight respiratory infections and ulcers, as well as to protect against radiation damage and ease grief, mood issues, and depression.

Growing and Harvesting Tulsi

Grow tulsi as you would regular basil but with a little more pampering: full sun, rich soil with good drainage, and regular moisture. It will do best in warm-to-hot temperatures and growth will stall on cold nights. The plants will die when kissed by frost (no matter which type you grow), yet can be cranky in the greenhouse. Holy basil can be grown in pots but won’t tolerate being too dry or waterlogged. Treat tulsi as an annual.

Harvest the leaves and flowers often, and pinch back blossoms to encourage more vigorous growth. Where I live, in New Hampshire (Zone 4), I get three to four harvests from June through August of ‘Kapoor’ tulsi, which allows me to make a half gallon of tincture and to fill a gallon jar with dried, cut, and sifted herb from a dozen plants. Tulsi is a juicy herb that can take a week or longer to dry, and it loses a significant amount of volume in the process.



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