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Ocimum tenuiflorum L. 1753
pronounced: OWE-kee-mum ten-yoo-ih-FOH-lee-um
(Lamiaceae – the lavender family)
synonym: Ocimum sanctum L. 1767
pronounced: OWE-kee-mum SANK-tum
common names: Sacred Basil, Tulsi
Ocimum is from the Greek word, ωκιμον (okimon), for basil; tenuiflorum is from the Latin tenuis, fine, thin, slim, slender, and flos, a flower. The ‘sacred’ in the popular name comes from the synonym, where sanctus is Latin for ‘holy’. Sacred basil, cousin to sweet basil, is an erect, much-branched sub-shrub 30–60 cm tall with hairy stems and simple opposite green leaves that are strongly scented. The leaves have petioles, and are ovate, up to 5 cm long, usually slightly toothed. The flowers are purplish in elongate racemes in close whorls.
The leaves of sacred basil, known as kraphao, are commonly used in Thai cuisine. This is not the same herb that is usually known as Thai basil, which is a variety of Ocimum basilicum. The best known dish made with kraphao is Phat kraphao, beef, pork or chicken stir-fried with the herb.
Tulsi, as it is known in India, has been used in Ayurveda for thousands of years for its diverse healing properties. It is mentioned by Charaka in the Charaka Samhita. It is regarded almost as an elixir of life, believed to promote longevity. Its extracts are used for common colds, headaches, stomach disorders, inflammation, heart disease, various forms of poisoning, and malaria. Traditionally, tulsi is taken in many forms: as herbal tea, dried powder, fresh leaf, or mixed with ghee. Essential oil extracted from the plant is mostly used for medicinal purposes, but also in herbal cosmetics – it is widely used in skin preparations due to its anti-bacterial activity. For many years, dried leaves of the plant have been mixed with stored grain to repel insects.
Tulsi is worshipped as a divinity, not merely as something sent by God, as most sacred plants are viewed. Hindus know the plant as tulasi and surasah in Sanskrit, and tulsi in Hindi. Other commonly used names are haripriya (dear to Vishnu) and Bhutagni (destroyer of demons). Many legends and village stories relate how tulsi came to grow and be worshipped on earth. The classic Hindu myth, Samudramathana (churning of the cosmic ocean) explains that Vishnu spawned tulsi from the turbulent seas as a vital aid for all mankind. More common are legends that describe how the Goddess herself came to reside on earth as tulsi, and was transformed into a basil bush to be worshipped morning and evening by all believers. Many Hindus have the plant growing in front of, or near, their homes, and it is frequently grown next to Vishnu temples. It is believed that poisonous snakes and mosquitoes do not come close to the plant, due to the scent it emits. By keeping the body healthy, the plant also keeps the mind healthy and free from worries, thus enabling believers to worship the Ultimate Reality in comfort. The wood of the plant is used to make rosaries for prayers to Vishnu, and it is believed by many that to wear such a rosary around the neck prevents diseases of the throat. The plant is used to maintain ritual purity, to purify if polluted, and to ward off evil. A leaf is placed in the mouth of the dying to ensure passage to heaven. During an eclipse, leaves are ingested and also placed in cooked food and stored water to ward off psychic pollution. Funeral pyres often contain tulsi wood to protect the spirits of the dead.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2010
Page last updated 8th January 2017