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Tulsi / Holy Basil: Lore & Lure Of A Sacred Plant

the significance of a sacred plant

With so many proverbial balls in the air, I approached a neighbor, Ms. Nancy, asking if she would look into my garden in my absence. Seeing my frazzled looked she suggested - I should take some Holy Basil (or Tulsi) for stress. I was surprised as I was not expecting her to know about it. However, she meant ‘from a bottle’, I interpreted it ‘from the plant’.

You’ve seen me include holy basil in many things – from Tulsi Tea to Fig and Tulsi Lassi with Honey and Almonds. Holy Basil or Tulsi is a common herb found on the window sills and in gardens of many people from India. My grandma had a routine habit of consuming fresh Tulsi leaves several times a day – I learned she used it to manage her diabetes and hypertension. I often add fresh Tulsi leaves to a cup of green tea on my busy days. I will add it to a brew of cha during the winter months, add it as a finishing touch to cha during the summer, and will frequently find all sorts of reasons to add it into summer sips for my family (such as lassi’s and smoothies).

Most often seen in Hindu homes, its benefits are appreciated across many who have either lived in India or are familiar with the culture (not only the cuisine) as well as those interested in alternative and herbal medicine. Not to be confused with regular basil, Holy basil has many benefits – culinary and otherwise and can be a unique herb to a culinary gardener.

Folk lore & Cultural Importance

Tulsi is important in the Hindu culture. This plant is believed to be the consort of Lord Vishnu – an important part of the Hindu trinity (Bramha, Vishnu and Shiva). In local languages, the Tulsi plant is often referred to have feminine qualities or as ‘she’. Tulsi leaves are important in ritualistic practices, such as the Satyanarayan Pooja (a ceremony honoring Lord Vishnu, wherein 1001 or more Tulsi leaves are offered during the course of the ceremony) or included in very specific prayer ceremonies for male deities such as Lord Ganesha, but only on specific occasions. In the Pandharpur yatra (a pilgrimage to Pandharpur, to visit the temple of Vithoba, a form of Lord Vishnu), women will carry a pot of Tulsi on their head and walk the pilgrimage route to take Tulsi to her consort, Vishnu or Vithoba. In traditional homes married Hindu women will pray to Tulsi for the health and well-being of their family, and especially the head of the household, and Tulsi in general holds a rather revered spot in Hindu homes. It holds center stage in a traditional home, and in very old single family residences, a central open courtyard will house a single Tulsi plant in a Tulsi ‘kyari’ or a quadrangular pot.

Therapeutic Applications

Tulsi holds within itself many healing properties and has been included in Ayurvedic preparations for generations – hence it finds such an important place in many Indian households. The leaves contain a chemical compound Eugenol, similar to the one found in cloves. Eugenol is considered an effective remedy against bronchitis, colds, coughs and ailments of the upper respiratory tract. Consuming fresh leaves first thing in the morning is believed to help reduce blood pressure, lower stress and also helps in the management of type 2 diabetes (adult onset); is analgesic and anti-inflammatory amongst its many other beneficial properties.

Growing Tulsi

Botanically speaking, Occimum sanctum, O. tenuifolium or Holy Basil belongs to the mint family or Lamiaceae family with angular stems and fragrant leaves. The stems of the Tulsi plant have two leaves per node (opposite and decussate to be exact, meaning they are arranged in a cross fashion on the stem – two at a time, each pair grows at a 90’ angle to the previous one). Its leaves are oval with a ruffled slightly serrated edge, and no more than 1/2” long, thin to touch and have a single mid-rib. They are fragrant and both the stem and the leaf stalk are slightly hairy. Unlike the mint Tulsi flowers often, but does not propagate as easily with underground stems, but relies on prolific seed production to propagate itself. Tulsi plants bear tiny blooms several times a year on 4” tall stalks. The tiny flowers are attractive to small insects, ants, certain kinds of small wasps and bees as well. Nearly all flowers produce a seed. Trim the flowering stalk away and there will be no more Tulsi plants. The seeds are tiny black spheres, and can be easily mistaken for a very tiny fleck of black sand! As a garden plant it is not showy at all – old plants can become leggy, uneven watering affects the leaves and leaves are borne more tightly on the plant itself. A properly cared for Tulsi plant can live for many years but it will most likely grow no more than a few feet tall. In warmer climates, Tulsi is a perennial woody herb. It is happy in warmer zones, outside, 10 and up, and cannot tolerate frost. For homes in cooler climates – a warm window-sill with direct sunlight and well drained soil is its happy place. They are easy to grow from seed; seeds may be available via seed catalogs or small plants are often seen in small pots in ethnic stores.

There are two kinds of Tulsi – Krishna Tulsi or the dark leafed Tulsi and the Dhawali, green Tulsi or the light leafed Tulsi. The taste of the leaves of Krishna Tulsi (dark leafed Tulsi) is only slightly sharper than Dhawali Tulsi. This is a morphological difference, as the leaves of Krishna Tulsi and the stem are slightly tinged with a shade of purple whereas the Dhawali Tulsi or the light leaved one is not. I have grown a dark leafed Tulsi indoors which then lost its magenta tinge when I grew it outdoors.

I have also heard that Tulsi is grown as a natural mosquito repellent, but one would need to grow large swaths of it for it to be truly effective.

Now that you know a little more about this tiny herb with spicy leaves, go look for it in your ethnic markets, ask your Indian friends for tiny sprouts to add to your herb garden (local folks – if mine survives in my absence, I have plenty to give away), or grow them from seed. You will be glad you did and I am sure once you see its potential, you will start finding different ways to include it in your diet.

Existing Medical Research / Further Reading


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Nandita Godbole
Once: botanist & landscape architect.
Now: personal chef, author, an artist, graphic designer, blogger, poet & potter!
Always: dreamer.

Loves fresh brewed chai, the crisp salty ocean breeze, watching monsoon rains & walking barefoot through cold mountain streams. 
Believes in the strength, positivity of the human spirit. Is spiritual but not a fanatic. 
Mom of one. Two, if she counts her husband.

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