Sweet Basil: Growing Your Own Medicine
Food as Medicine
A favorite herb and spice found in Italian dishes, Thai dishes, and some middle eastern dishes, sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is one of several varieties of basil known not only for its ability to add flavor, but medicinal aspects as well. In these regions, the basil plant has not only been used in cooking, but also in healing for centuries.
The plant is lush green with smooth rounded-edges and pointed-tip leaves. The leaves resemble peppermint leaves, as the two plants are closely related. Sweet basil is the most common form of garden basil and can be found dried in the spice aisle, fresh in the produce aisle, or still in the dirt of many gardeners fortunate enough to cultivate it.
A Sweet Basil History
Sweet basil is originally from India and is also native to tropical regions of Asia, where it has been grown for more than 5,000 years. The name is derived from the Greek word basilikohn which means “royal” – a fitting considering how prized this herb was in many cultures.
In Egypt, Greece, and India it was placed with the deceased to ensure a speedy travel to the afterlife. In India it is seen as a symbol of hospitality and is used prominently in Ayurvedic medicine. On the flip side, some cultures considered the fragrant herb an evil plant, with one historic French physician believing that smelling too much of the herb would cause scorpions to breed in the brain.
(Don’t worry, that won’t happen).
Health Benefits of Sweet Basil
Sweet basil, like most herbs, is loaded with health benefits. In addition to being a rich source of vitamin K, beta carotene, and iron, the plant is known to harness anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties. The majority of the great benefits of basil can be attributed to its volatile oils and flavonoids – powerful, plant-based antioxidants that reduce inflammation, help fight aging, and promote healthy arteries
In basil essential oil, the volatile oils within the plant have been shown to have incredible antibacterial properties. Studies have confirmed the ability of these oils to restrict the growth of bacterial like Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, and Escherichia coli (E-coli), among others. A study published in a 2004 issue of Food Microbiology demonstrated that basil oils can even stop the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Scientists searching for natural, toxin-free food preservatives discovered that washing produce in a solution of as little as 1% basil essential oil decreased Shigella contamination below levels at which it could be detected. They’ve suggested that including basil in your salad could provide similar safeguards.
Two flavonoids within sweet basil have shown particular promise in fighting cell damage from radiation and free radicals. Orientin and vicenin are antioxidants that work to protect the cells.
But the benefits of sweet basil don’t stop there. Basil also:
- Improves circulation
- Increases immune function
- Reduces inflammation
- Reduces the oxidation of cholesterol
- Protects the heart
- Detoxifies the blood
- May help control blood sugar levels
In herbal medicine, basil can be taken for:
- Stomach cramps
- Uterine cramping
- A wide variety of digestive problems
Growing Sweet Basil
Basil is a little more finicky than other plants in your herb garden, like thyme and mint. It prefers warm weather, so you won’t want to plant it until after the last frost of the season. The plan also does well both in the ground or in pots.
There are several varieties. While some can grow to be as tall as 6 feet, most gardeners find their sweet basil to rest under 3 feet – if that. If you want to ensure a smaller basil plant, simply keep it in a pot, which will restrict root growth.
Sweet basil can be started from seed (you don’t need to buy a small plant from the garden center). Place your seeds about ¼ inch deep in the ground and about 10-12 inches apart from each separate planting. Make sure the spot you have chosen will get full sun as basil wants it bright and warm. Also, keep it well hydrated with adequate amounts of water.
In order to encourage a healthy plant with a lot of foliage, develop a habit to pinch off the tops of the growing stalks; this will encourage new growth and will also prevent flowering (known as “going to seed” in the gardening world). If your basil develops flowers, the flavor will lose some potency, so preventing flowers is a good idea. However, if you do get flowers those are edible too!
Using Sweet Basil
The easiest way to use basil is to eat it. It’s delicious and has a sort of spicy-sweet licorice flavor. It tastes amazing in salads and especially with a sun-ripened tomato. While sweet basil is most often included in cooked meals, you’ll get the most benefits when you eat it raw, though combining it with other foods won’t lessen its impact.
You can also add basil to a salad vinaigrette. Simply combine it with extra virgin olive oil, a bit of garlic, and some apple cider vinegar for a healing combination that can be splashed on salads or used on bread.
Finally, a basil infusion is a great elixir when you need the medicinal qualities to soothe a cough or treat cramping. Simply pour boiled water over a handful of fresh basil leaves and allow to steep for at least five minutes before straining and drinking.
To extend your fresh basil as long as possible without having to dry it (and lose some of the flavor) try freezing it. For cooking or use on salads, puree the basil in a food processor and add just enough extra virgin olive oil to make a paste. Press it flat and wrap in freezer paper or a plastic freezer bag if you must. Then, when you need it you can simply break off a chunk to use anytime of year.
Growing your own basil for medicine is a way to take your health and gardening skills in your own hands and to the next level. Both as a preventative measure and a natural remedy for illness, sweet basil is an excellent addition to any budding herbalist’s collection.