BASIL (Ocimum spp – Labiatae)

There are more than 100 varieties of the herb basil, and they come in different sizes, shapes, colours and scents (some lemony, some tarragon ¬or clove-like). The common variety has dark green leaves which, if bruised, yield a very aromatic scent. The basil plant grows to a height of about 20 – 50 cm (8 – 20 in), and the flowers are white, arranged on the stem in several crowded, bristly whorls at the point from which the leaf stalks grow. Basil originates from India, but is now cultivated in many countries – around the Mediterranean, in Java, the Seychelles, Reunion, in Florida and Morocco. It is thought to have reached Europe in the sixteenth century.
The botanical name of basil is derived from the Greek okimon meaning quick, because the plant grows so rapidly. The namebasilicum, that of the commonest culinary herb, derives from the Latin for royal, thus the plant is often known as the royal herb.
In Europe the basil plant is considered by many to be a symbol of fertility; others associate it with death or evil (in Crete especially). The Greeks believed that when the plant was sown, words of abuse should be said or sung or the plant would not flourish; a belief echoed in the French phrase, ‘semer (to sow) le basilic’, to slander someone.
Basil was recommended by Pliny against jaundice and epilepsy, and as a diuretic. It was also known as an aphrodisiac, so no wonder the Romans used it in so many culinary recipes! In the Middle Ages it was prescribed for melancholy and depression.


Description: This is obtained by steam distillation of the flower tops or young shoots and the leaves. The basil oil is yellow, and it is very aromatic, similar in many ways to the essential oil of tarragon, but warmer and more camphory. It has been distilled in France since the sixteenth century, mentioned at that time by Jerome Brunschwig in one of his treatises on distillation.
The principal constituents: The essence is rich in camphor, cineol, estragol (or methyl chavicol), eugenol, linalool and pinene but all vary in proportion according to the plant and to its provenance.
Dangers: Following scares about the effects of estragol (or methyl chavicol) which can cause adverse reactions in sensitive subjects, and may even cause cancer in high doses, the essential oil industry is looking at types of basil which contain little or none. These include O. canum (Sims), camphor type, also known as O. Americanum (Linn), which comes from India and Russia, and has a very high proportion of camphor; O. canum (Sims), linalool-type, introduced from Kenya, which obviously has a high linalool content,’ and O. gratissimum (Linn) which is indigenous to India and Sudan, and has a high phenol content.


In illness
Basil’s properties are known to be carminative, galactogenic, stomachic, acts as a tonic and is antispasmodic. Dr Jean Valnet, a contemporary leading French aromatherapist, says it also helps normalize the menstrual cycle. An oil with basil in is useful as a rub on the tummy and solar plexus during menopause: use 3 drops in 20 ml (4 tsp) grapeseed oil. You could also add 5 drops to the bath water. You might not like the smell of the oil – more a ‘cooking’ smell to many people – so add a little of another essential oil to the bath water: orange, for instance, or, if you’re feeling rich, some rose.

Basil is also a good fortifier of the nervous system, and is valuable for nervous fatigue, nervous insomnia, and mental and physical tiredness. A simple remedy for anxiety or stress is a mixture of 5 ml (1 tsp) soya oil, a drop of marjoram and 2 drops of basil oil. Rub all over the body.
Basil is particularly effective as a migraine remedy. It is also valuable when used for colds and a loss of the sense of smell, due to colds, hayfever or virus infections. Put 1 drop of basil oil in a bowl of hot water, and inhale for a few minutes two to three times a day until the symptoms improve.
Basil leaves can be eaten after garlic consumption to sweeten the breath. Basil is also a very good natural antiseptic: add a few drops to the water you wash the kitchen floor with, or the water for washing a sick pet’s basket. A few drops on a piece of cotton wool left on top of a radiator will purify the atmosphere.
(See also abscesses and boils, anosmia, depression, dyspepsia, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, oedema, palpitations, pre-menstrual tension, sexual problems and stings and bites.)

Basil aphrodisiac
This is a very old family recipe from Cahors, my birthplace. For its aphrodisiac effect, drink a glass before meals with your loved one. It is also effective for impotence, depression, mental fatigue and melancholy; likewise drink a glass before meals.

  • 1 litre (1 ¾ pints) red wine of Cahors
  • 50 g (2 oz) fresh basil leaves
  • Uncork the bottle, push in the basil leaves, and replace the cork. Leave to mature for two days in the dark, shaking the bottle from time to time.

In cookery
Needless to say, eating fresh basil or using it in cooking, will give many of the above benefits, especially the digestive ones. Add the fresh flower heads and leaves to salads just before serving and, if to be cooked, add just moments before the cooking time is up. It goes well with fish, chicken and eggs, with peppers, aubergines and tomatoes.

To preserve the flavour and medicinal benefits of basil, macerate it in olive oil; dried; it tastes and smells rather musty and curry-like. Grow it in Britain on a sunny inside windowsill; on the Continent, it flourishes outside.

Other uses
These are legion. Basil was used as a strewing herb, in pot-pourris and herb bags, and the oil is still used in soaps and perfumery. In Spain and Greece, the plant is used to keep flies away, but the oil used neat, or crushed leaves, can soothe wasp stings.

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