Medicinal PlantsPlants

Basil: What Every Permaculturalist Should Know

In a design system in which we are looking for each element to perform multiple functions, there are few plants that can show off quite the way basil does. As a rule of thumb, things are expected to warrant their placement within our designs with at least two useful attributes, but basil performs well all over the show. It dazzles in the kitchen, the garden, the herb spiral, the food forest, the medicine cabinet, the artisanal products, and the blender. This article is here to delve into that, the seedy world of basil. (Warning: Basil is not good for making puns, even for practiced writers.)

In the garden

Basil is a great addition to permaculture gardens. Despite having plenty of perennial varieties, the big challenge can be that they are not particularly frost-hardy. They like a lot of sun, and in tropical climates, they can endure both wet and dry season without much bother. For places that dip below freezing, basil might work better as a potted plant that lives inside for the winter, and there it will still need plenty of light, six to eight hours of sun or ten-plus of artificial light. Hey, it’s a big world, to each place its own, but if basil is in your wheelhouse, it is worth it. It works overtime in the garden.

Sweet Basil (Courtesy of Khairil Yusof)
Sweet Basil (Courtesy of Khairil Yusof)

• As with any member of the mint clan, it does well to confuse many garden insects, so it works as a pest deterrent on behalf of the other plants within its system.
• On the other hand, bees absolutely love a flowering basil plant, so it will invite those pollinators in to do their work.
• Basil is very aromatic and simply walking by it, or brushing up against it, fills the area with something lovely to breathe.
• It is very easy to reproduce and grow. Seeds take well to soil, but cuttings root so readily that it’s hardly necessary to go through the whole germination thing.

Basil matches well with most plants, but it is a particularly good companion for tomatoes. Then, these two things work well with garlic and borage, which could combine for a great salad (using the garlic sprouts). Otherwise, it is friendly with peppers, eggplants and potatoes (more from the nightshade group), as well as beans, cabbage and beets. In the tropics, some varieties will grow as a meter high perennial bush and make great hedges as well. Regardless, the cuttings are so easy to root, that it’s no bother to always have fresh basil around, be it in a container or in a garden. Or, why not both?

In the Kitchen

Basil is amongst the most commonly used culinary herbs, and though it all gets lumped together, there are some quite distinct flavors to be found amongst the different varieties. Sweet basil is what we typically see in Italian cuisines, including and especially pesto sauce, but also Capriccio salads and just about any pasta dish, whether oil, tomato or cream based. Thai basil has a different accent, so to say, and a fresh leaf or twelve make Thai curry what it is. Lemon basil has, well, a bit of lemon lilt to its performance. All of this is to say basil has a wide range of uses in the kitchen.

Homemade Pesto (Courtesy of Lori L. Stalteri)
Homemade Pesto (Courtesy of Lori L. Stalteri)

• It works like dynamite in salads, adding a burst of flavor, which can either be full on with whole leaves of sweet basil or chopped into a delicious suggestion. And, don’t forget fruit salads with basil as an option.
• Sauces of all sorts—curry, peanut, tomato, pesto, creamy—just aren’t quite the same without basil, often a key element to the overall ambience of the dish.
• It also works very well as a drink. This can be something like a strawberry-basil smoothie, or it can be used to make herbal teas.
• Most people don’t think of basil as a dessert ingredient, but it is of the mint family, which is commonly used in desserts. Basil can be, too. Pair it with berries, melon, or creamy stuff.

To try to sum up the capacity of what basil can do in the kitchen in a mere four bullet points is asking a bit much. Suffice it to say, there is no huge struggle for putting it to use. What’s more is that, it can become a dried herb if need be, or it can go into making huge batches of pesto, tomato-basil soup, or whatever else for storage. There is the potential to use it in so many ways in the kitchen that food hardly seems to capture it all.

In the Medicine Cabinet

The garden and the kitchen have provided plenty of reasons to include basil in design plans, but it has a bevy of medicinal qualities and uses that warrant it even more. Truth be told, most herbs do seem to have some clout in the herbal medicine world, hence the books and articles with 101 natural remedies. But, basil has enough going on medicinally that it’s hard not to stop and take notice, and often it’s as easy as adding basil to one’s diet regularly, which we’ve already covered.

Holy Basil Tea (Courtesy of urbanfoodwarrior)
Holy Basil Tea (Courtesy of urbanfoodwarrior)

• Anti-inflammatory properties are great for helping with arthritic and joint problems, as well as bowel inflammation.
• It contains an acid, cinnamanic, that helps with circulation, respiration and blood sugar levels, which helps those with diabetes, breathing problems, and so on.
• It has a high number of anti-oxidants, which are instrumental in preventing cancers of all types, as well as untimely aging.
• And, it’s antibacterial, such that it can be applied to wounds or help with infections, and it can aid against colds, flus, and viruses, especially herpes.

The list of cures extends into common coughs, fevers and soar throats on over to kidney stones and heart problems then into bad breath and headaches. Basil has a wide variety of medicinal uses that, without its other attributes, would suggest that growing it at home is almost compulsory. It’s just too good for our health to ignore. Start delving into making tinctures and extracts from basil and a whole different aspect of its medicinal prowess is revealed.

So, it’s hard to discount basil from a design, especially in any sort of tropical environment, where it will grow rampantly as a perennial. But, even in colder environs, it’s probably worth the effort to have at least a container or two of basil, and if so, why not replicate it from there and stick in the garden when things aren’t frosty? Basils are just great, multi-functional plants to have around, wherever one may be.

(Note: This article is not affiliated or in anyway financed by the High Society of Basil Brigadiers, nor has the author ever been involved in commercial pesto production. Some people simply enjoy plants and the powers that lie within them.)

Feature Image: Thai Basil (Courtesy of choking sun)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. Re: Basil & Tomatoes

    There’s a large portion of ‘wives tales’ devoted to basil and tomato as companions but the truth is tomatoes are very bad for basil, while basil is good for the tomatoes.

    The interactions occur with the root systems. Basil is a poor competitor in comparison to tomatoes. When you interplant basil between your tomatoes the tomatoes will fare better than if they are planted next to each other. Tomatoes compete with other tomatoes quite handily causing both sides of the interaction considerable stress. But basil is such a pushover the tomatoes thrive, and the other benefits are of course available eg interactions with insects.

    If you want a large basil crop move it away from the tomatoes and watch what happens. Studies show up to 400% more basil when not competing with tomatoes.

    So it’s a trade-off. Better tomatoes and less basil is what you get when you use them together.

    If you are planning growing excess basilyou might want to reconsider tomatoes in close proximity. If your target crop is tomatoes, with a bit of basil as a bonus, interplanting works well.

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