Here we are again folks, at the next stop on our Zaytuna Farm herb tour. We’ve already met Rosemary, Yarrow, Aloe, Mint, Sage, Comfrey, Parsley, Lavender Nasturtium, & Calendula, and yet we’ve still got so many wonderful herbs to go. Today we stop at the top of our kitchen garden at a bushy shrub, a little scraggly and non-descript, you might walk by without making a note of her if you haven’t met before.
Like many of our herbal heroes she goes by many names, you’ve probably heard her called Tulsi or perhaps Holy Basil. Her scientific name is Ocimum tenuiflorum or Ocimum sanctum, another reference to the reverence she receives but not as expressive as her more Queen of Herbs. Tulsi comes from the Sanskrit word Tulasi, another of her names, which means incomparable and the list of her potential uses reveals why.
Tulsi in the Garden
Tulsi, like other basils, is a member of the Lamiaceae or Mint family. Originally from Southern Asia, she was found from Malaysia through to south China & across to Pakistan. Now she’s travelled widely and made herself at home in all corners of the world. In subtropical and tropical climates she is perennial and it seems almost perennially in flower. She grows to around a metre tall, a shrubby fragrant addition to any garden. Her leaves are small, just a few centimetres in length, with serrated edges, and range in colour from light green to almost purple. She has small pink or purple flowers on racemes.
Tulsi makes an excellent companion plant in a vegetable garden (though she will need space) and a food forest. She’s quite hardy once established, though she won’t survive too many frosts, and grows as an annual in temperate climates. Bees love her flowers and this alone is a good reason to keep a Tulsi or two in the backyard. Plant Tulsi in a sunny spot, with nutrient rich soil and she’ll give you many healing cups of tea. As she gets so bushy, she can be a great companion plant for more heat-sensitive plants by planting them strategically, on the side away from the sun.
Tulsi is propagated by seed or cuttings. The seeds can be slow to germinate, mine have averaged 3 weeks or more. They need constant moist but not damp soil in the germination process and protection from cold temperatures. Cuttings can be started in a glass of water, with the water being changed regularly to avoid mould.
Uses of Tulsi
Tulsi is not a common ingredient in food in India, although there is a tradition of eating a few leaves first thing in the morning on an empty stomach to boost immunity, and of drinking tea.
Thai food makes more use of it as an edible green, but it has a strong flavour so is more commonly used as flavouring. It’s rich in Vitamin K and antioxidants.
Where Tulsi really shines is in the herbal medicine cabinet. In Ayurvedic medicine she’s considered a supreme health-supporting tonic, as she is in other herbal medicine traditions. It’s considered an adaptogen, which builds health & an important immune building tonic. She also has powerful antiviral, antibacterial, and analgesic properties.
Tulsi has traditionally been used to treat a range of ailments, including digestive issues, flatulence, vomiting, heartburn & ulcers. Like other plants in the mint family Tulsi has a calming & antispasmodic effect that can soothe an irritated digestive tract.
Tulsi’s expectorant and warming properties are used in the treatment of colds & flus, & to ease congestion & coughing. Her immunomodulating properties are believed to help reduce excessive immune responses in allergic rhinitis and asthma.
Tulsi has also been used in the treatment of diabetes to help stabilise blood sugar levels, as well as to calm anxiety & stress. Another use of Tulsi is to lower stress-related high blood pressure. It’s considered beneficial for the brain and memory, and has been used to assist those with mental fog, poor memory, attention deficit, and to assist recovery incases of head trauma. Studies suggest that Tulsi may also have anticancer properties.
Women might find it particularly useful in helping to bring on or regulate menstruation, & ease menstrual cramping & pain. It has also been used as a galactagogue, to stimulate breast milk production.
Tulsi is taken as a tonic or medicine most commonly as a tea. The tea is best made with fresh leaves but dried works well too; due to the high content of volatile oils, Rosalee de la Foret recommends only steeping for 5-10 minutes covered. Tulsi can also be prepared as an extract, poultice, powder, juice, or infused in honey, ghee or vinegar.
Tulsi leaves contain an essential oil, which can be beneficial for muscle cramps, respiratory conditions and infection, but which is also high in eugenol. Eugenol is also present in cloves and other herbs, and can occasionally be a skin irritant. Tisserand recommends a maximum limit of 1% dilution. Tulsi essential oil should be used with caution by some individuals, as it may inhibit blood clotting or interact with medications or surgery. It is not recommended for use during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
To get the benefits of Tulsi it’s not necessary to use the essential oil, or even drink the tea. Tulsi has a long history of external use for skin and hair health & she is a wonderful ingredient in an organic, home-grown skin & hair care routine. Tulsi is traditionally used in masks for acne, anti-aging & to even out pigmentation spots. As an antimicrobial Tulsi can be used externally, often in the form of a poultice to treat fungal or viral skin infections.
It’s partly this quality that also makes Tulsi useful as a scalp or hair rinse or mask to treat dandruff, hair loss and excessive hair fall.
Tulsi is not recommended for use during pregnancy or conception. It may have anti-fertility effects on both women and men. Tulsi is a mild blood thinner, and should not be used by those taking warfarin. It may also help speed up elimination of medication in general. Tulsi should only be taken by those on insulin under the direction of a medical professional.
Alchemy of Herbs by Rosalee De La Foret
Essential Oil Safety by Robert Tisserand
How Can I use Herbs in my Daily Life by Isabel Shippard
The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy by Valerie Ann Worwood