‘Hilarius, a French playright, affirms upon his own knowledge, that an acquaintance of his, by common smelling to it, had a scorpion bred in his brain’. So, wrote Nicholas Culpeper in a passage on basil in his The English Physitian (1652). The text also claimed the plant possessed a ‘kind of virulent quality’, caused ‘venomous beasts’ to appear in horse-dung, and would not grow near rue – apparently a danger sign.
The plant we know now as Ocimum basilicum has largely lost these connotations and is popular as a culinary herb, its leaves having an aromatic, slightly spicy scent which pairs well with tomatoes. It is also the key ingredient in pesto. Many culinary cultivars exist, with different flavours due to varying amounts of essential oils, and decorative varieties with purple flowers or foliage. The leaves should be eaten raw, as cooking or drying destroys their flavour; a typical use is to add the fresh leaves to salads.
Basil is native to tropical areas of central Africa to South East Asia, and prefers a sunny site with well-drained soil. While it can be grown in the UK, it is frost tender so must be moved indoors during winter or sown again each year. It forms a small to medium, bushy, herbaceous plant, with the square stems, and soft, glossy, oval, opposite leaves with slightly serrated margins. Small, usually white flowers, are borne in clusters at the top of the stem. After flowering, foliage production is reduced and stems become woody; this can be prevented by pinching out shoot tips before flowers appear.
The supposed properties of basil, as recorded by Culpeper, seem noteworthy today. However, the plant appears always to have inspired striking associations, many of them contradictory. A connection with death is common, with basil strewn on graves in Iran, Malaysia and Egypt. But in Romania, presenting a sprig of basil confirmed a couple’s engagement. Whilst it was so revered by the ancient Greeks that they believed only the king should be allowed to harvest it. A close relative, Ocimum tenuiflorum, known as holy basil or Tulsi, is sacred in Hinduism. Medicinal uses abound, including the easing of laboured breathing, heart problems, headaches and melancholia.
Culpeper acknowledges the controversy over basil, noting that Galen and Dioscorides advise against taking it internally, while Pliny considers it to be safe. He sensibly concludes his piece ‘I dare write no more of it’.
Baritaux O et al. 1992. Effects of drying and storage of herbs and spices on the essential oil. Part I. Basil, Ocimum basilicum L. Flavour and Fragrance Journal 7: 267-271.
Hiltunen R and Holm Y 2003. Basil: the genus Ocimum. CRC Press.