Sunday, June 27, 2010

Basil: Joyful and Courageous

(Ocimum basilicum, O. sanctum)
Basil. Saying it summons images of sunny weather, dining outdoors, delicious cuisine and happy memories. Basil is affiliated with many legends that ascribe pleasant imagery and feelings to the herb. In Italy, where the plant was sometimes called “kiss me Nicholas,” a woman left a pot of Basil on her windowsill to indicate that she was looking for a suitor. Some traditions say that a man would be destined to fall in love with any woman who gifted him with a Basil plant, but love and fidelity aren’t the only desirable blessings the herb is said to attract; in Mexico, carrying a few Basil leaves in your pocket is certain to bring in money. Be sure to carry some in your wallet the next time you visit the casino!

Basil’s folklore didn’t always invoke such pleasing associations though; during Medieval times, a superstition that linked Basil to scorpions went as far as declaring that smelling basil’s pungent aroma would cause scorpions to grow in one’s brain. In reality, Basil deters insects, in particular it is repellant toward scorpions and toxic to mosquitoes. It is marvelously helpful to apply on bites and stings, notably from scorpions, as it draws poisons back to the site and inhibits the dispersal of toxins into the bloodstream. Also noteworthy, dried and powdered basil “snuff” or essential oil applied topically can open sinuses and clear headaches rather than grow a brain scorpion.

The name Basil is believed to originate from the word basilisk, an evil serpent-like creature with deadly venom that could be conquered with a mere sprig of Basil. The connection to its power against venomous bites is not subtle in this tale. Another theory is that it originates from the Greek term basilikos, which means “worthy of kings;” certainly there are vast amounts of literature that present Basil with a level of sanctity. Tulsi, meaning “matchless” in the Far East, is known as Holy Basil (O. sanctum) here in the West. In legends, Tulsi manifested from the ashes of the goddess Tulasi and provides love, eternal life, purification and protection.

Holy Basil is considered to be very sacred in many parts of the world as its name suggests. In India, some courts have those who testify swear their oaths upon a Holy Basil plant. Sacred to Lakshmi, wife of Vishnu, the dried stems of Tulsi are sometimes cut into beads and used like a rosary for offering prayers. After the Lotus, Holy Basil is considered to be the most blessed plant in India; being far too hallowed to cook with, the herb is planted around homes and temples for heavenly protection.

The offer of divine protection has been a universal theme for Basil; In India, when death was imminent, a piece of Tulsi placed in the mouth of the dying assured safe passage to paradise. An old European custom had loved ones place sprigs of the herb in the hands of their dearly departed to ensure a protected journey to the Other Side. In ancient Egypt and Greece, Basil was provided to the deceased in order to open the gates of Heaven for them. In fact, the Greek Orthodox Church prepared their Holy Water with Tulsi, and other traditional churches would often place pots of Basil underneath their altars.

In modern spirituality, Basil continues to provide a link to the unconscious; some resources suggest that Basil can assist one in recalling their past lives. Renaissance herbalist Gaspard Bauhin (1560) once said that Basil, “with its fine scent quickens the brain and heart and restores the vital spirits.” Perhaps it is the penetrating aroma that opens unexplored pathways to previously uncultivated aspects of our consciousness.

A few weeks ago, before I had decided to embrace Basil’s teachings beyond a rudimentary understanding of her vast benefits to humanity, I went to lunch with a girlfriend that I hadn’t seen in quite a while. During our meal, she began to tell me about the reason she had been off the radar screen: she had been sick. As a professional singer, her lungs and her voice were more than important to her, they were her raison d’etre. We spoke at length about different dietary, herbal and complementary approaches and after we parted company, the thought of her lingering illness stayed on my mind.

Her symptoms included copious amounts of mucous, bronchial and sinus congestion, tremendous fatigue, poor digestion and a feeling of being chilled. She looked pale and puffy and she moved without her usual grace and spunk. I was concerned about her when I went to sleep that night, and at the first light of dawn I received a message from the plant I had only just chosen for this monograph: Basil. (Okay, let’s be honest here, Basil clearly chose me.) The message I was given was specific to my friend: that Basil strongly desired to be her plant ally. I immediately sprang from my bed and looked up the various characteristics of Basil beyond what I knew about her benefits in the treatment of migraine headaches, to improve digestion and her established attributes for lowering blood sugar in the treatment of diabetes.

All Basils are warming and drying and have strong action on the respiration, the nervous system and reproduction; they are stimulating to Yang energy and treat fatigue, cold and depression. Better than Hyssop for supporting the body’s vital energy and more effective than Thyme for warming and stimulating wet, congested lungs, Basil also address chronic sinusitis with concurrent loss of smell. The most specific indication that Basil is appropriate for in respiratory conditions is chest tightness, wet asthma and lungs that consistently produce copious amounts of clear or white phlegm. I knew instantly that Basil had indeed come to give me this communication for my damp friend and called her on the spot to deliver the message.

Interestingly, she had been feeling drawn to Basil essential oil, one of the strongest methods of administering the herb (a tincture is also a great form of the remedy). With some time and effort, it could very well be the shot in the arm that she needs to restore her vitality, lift the fog of melancholy that weighed her spirits down from the long-standing malady and invigorate her sluggish constitution. I was also reminded of Basil’s ability to attract a loving mate and figured as a plant ally, this quality couldn’t hurt her any either!!

Speaking of amore, I find it fascinating that Basil can reduce sperm production, but is often used to restore libido in men and women alike. Across the board, applying the essential oil to someone with fatigue and a cold, achy lower back will bring immediate relief. For women, it can help to balance certain hormonal issues that present with delayed or scanty menstruation and cramps that are improved with the application of heat. The herb can help issues of female infertility, encourage the flow of breast milk and give men a much-needed lift in cases of impotence.

Basil restores the nerves, revives the consciousness, promotes clear thinking and helps assist the memory. Herbalist Wilhelm Ryff (1582) said of Basil, “It awakens joy and courage.” I have to agree, it is a marvelous cure for stress!!

Almost everyone loves Basil; the scent, the flavor, its attractiveness in a garden and its versatility in so many cuisines. From sweet basil pesto, to Thai spring rolls and as an interesting and pleasant accompaniment to sweet dishes like tea breads and fruit salad, it seems that Basil knows no culinary limits either. Plant some in your garden and enjoy the harvest of love, passion, fidelity, fine dining, and good health.

Lisl Meredith Huebner, Dipl.CH (NCCAOM), RH (AHG) is a nationally board certified Chinese Herbalist, and a Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild. Lisl is also a certified Medicinal Aromatherapist, a level II Reiki practitioner, an Acupressurist, an Auriculotherapist, a photographer, a renowned diagnostician, a teacher and a published writer in private practice for over a decade. She is available by appointment.
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