Holy Basil: A Helpful Herb

Holy basil, or tulsi, is often drank for its abundance of healthy properties. Thus it is often touted as a very helpful herb. Herbalist Greta de la Montagne sheds some light on the subject.

Holy Basil/Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum, and O. africanum), Lamiaceae (Mint) family 

According to plant expert Richo Cech of Strictly Medicinals, holy basil was first introduced into the US about 50 years ago. It was thought to have originated from India. Since, scientists using chrome spectrum genetic analysis, have found the introduced plant matched species originating from Africa, not India. Ayurveda (“the science of life” originating in India over 5,000 years ago) claims the herb as its own, however there are still lots of conflicting claims as to which continent the herb originated. The herb “holy basil” (also known as tulsi) (Occimum sanctum) and the culinary spice basil (Occimum basilicum) are indeed different plants with significant genetic differences, so don’t get confused! 

Four kinds of holy basil grown or imported in the US

Temperate Tulsi (Occimum africanum) is a self-seeding, short-season annual that matures quickly. This tulsi is a good one to cultivate in northern latitudes where it can grow at altitudes up to 6000ft and is harvestable at 40 days.

Vana Tulsi (Occimum gratissimum) is a temperate wild forest/bush/tree basil, native to east Africa containing a high quantity of euganol (oil of clove). 

Rama Tulsi (Occimum tenuiflorum) is green-leaved with a purple stem and is one of the tropical tulsis. The dried leaves make a very good tea which is primarily used for digestion. It grows 3’ high with stems about ½” thick.  

Krishna Tulsi (Occimum tenuiflorum) (Shyama- black, or Amrita tulsi, because it comes from Ama-chi’s ashram in the south of India) has dark purple leaves, purple stem and gets more purple as it grows. Used more for its detoxifying diaphoretic (warming) action, this variety can grow over 6’ tall and 5’ across with stems over 2” thick, essentially a small tree!

Many more varieties and hybrids of holy basil are found in India and worldwide but these are the four primarily used in teas. A blend of these holy basils along with butterfly pea flowers comprise Lake Missoula Tea Company’s Holy Butterfly Blend. Rich in flavor, it’s liquor is blue due to the butterfly pea flowers.

Good for the bees, too!

As a cultivated plant, holy basil is one of the best bee plants we can grow to bolster our native bee populations. Bees are drawn to the plant’s beautiful, tiny lavender blooms tightly displayed on linear spires. Holy basil also contains lots of triterpenoid compounds (essential oils) that help clean the beehive, dispel pathogens and limit mold. These compounds, which all holy basil varieties have, give the plant a unique clove-like and black pepper aroma. 

Holy basil as a medicinal herb

There are many other medicinal compounds found in holy basil that are beneficial to us as well as bees. As a medicinal herb, the basils, as a class, are stomachics (ease the digestion) and thus are helpful additives to foods or teas we consume (think basil in tomato sauce and salad dressings). As a tea herb, holy basil is kind to the stomach and helps balance and strengthen our digestive tract. Thus, holy basil is a great herb for including in a morning tea blend!

Oldest herbs in Ayurveda

In Ayurveda, holy basil is one of the oldest and most used herbs and provides the backbone of multiple treatments among Ayurvedic physicians. It is considered one of the three most sacred herbs of India, along with soma and lotus. Directly translated as “incomparable”, tulsi is referred to in ancient Ayurvedic texts as the “elixir of life”, and is thought to promote longevity. Holy basil is also thought to support the energy of attachment, which is the energy that draws prosperity near and keeps it in our lives. In addition, all basils are treated as heart exhilarants in Ayurveda and are used to increase joy and happiness.

Generally speaking, Ayurveda boasts holy basil as one of the best herbs to use for stress relief and anxiety disorders. Other traditional medicinal uses of holy basil include: relief of stress and anxiety, coughing, diarrhea, intestinal issues, fevers, arthritis, hiccups, skin conditions, malaria, diabetes, dementia, and acne. 

Recent studies on holy basil

Recent scientific research has tested these age-old uses for holy basil and determined that the plant extract does have multiple therapeutic actions, including adaptogenic (read about adaptogens further down in our blog), antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, and immunomodulatory effects. Serious attention is being given to its potential use in several conditions, like treating diabetes, normalizing blood sugar and blood fats, like cholesterol and triglycerides, and helping with cardiovascular diseases. Holy basil has also been shown to decrease shortness of breath and bronchospasm in asthma patients, kill microbes including bacteria and fungi, and stimulate the immune system. These studies have validated its historic use and continue to demonstrate the health benefits of this ancient herb. 

For more information on Holy Basil, click on our reference links listed below!

American Botanical Council review on Holy Basil  |  Holy Basil as an Immune Booster  |  Basil: A Brief Summary of Potential Health Benefits

Holy Basil Reference  |   Tulsi – Ocimum Sanctum: A Herb for All Reasons

Written by

Greta de la Montagne, RH (Registered Herbalist), AHG (American Herbalists Guild), and Lake Missoula’s herbalist consultant and blogger, edited by Boo Curry.

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