Basil is a cousin of mint and equally as powerful and popular in the herb world. It originates from India, where it has been used as spice and medicine at least 5000 years. Alexander the Great is thought to have brought basil to Greece in 350 BC. Basil is Greek for ‘royal’ or ‘kingly’. Ancient Greek and Roman doctors believed that basil would grow only if its cultivators sowed the seeds while screaming wild curses and shouting unintelligibly. There were many ancient superstitions connected with Basil, one of which was that it had the power of propagating scorpions. It was generally believed that a basil leaf left under a pot would in time turn into a scorpion. Superstition went so far as to affirm that even smelling the plant might bring a scorpion in the brain. In other cultures, it has a far more positive influence. In Haiti it is believed to be the protector of the people and in Hindu culture it is called Tulsi, or holy basil, and is put on the chest of the dead as a passport to paradise. Under British Crown rule in India, Hindus were allowed to swear on basil in court, instead of a bible. In Italy, basil is considered a token of love.
Best known for its use in Italian cuisine, basil is actually a staple ingredient in cuisines across the globe. Thai, Indian, Greek, Spanish, and Malaysian are a few examples of these cuisines. Thai Basil means “Won’t be exchanged even with gold” in Chinese.
There are over 160 varieties of basil that differ in size, color of the leaves and flowers, and chemical composition which determines the taste. The most common variety seen in grocery stores is Genovese or ‘sweet’ basil with large, rounded green leaves and pungent sweet smell. Other varieties have purple and even blue leaves and the fragrance can vary from spicy to licorice to lime to cinnamon.
Like most other herbs, basil is medicinally and nutritionally beneficial. It is packed full of vitamin K and manganese. Vitamin K is crucial to blood clotting and bone health while manganese promotes blood sugar control, skin integrity, and protection from free radicals. Basil is also a good source of vitamin A which promotes cardiovascular and eye health. It contains anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties as well as cellular protection from its content of flavanoids.
The leaves of the basil plant contain concentrated essential oils that are used medicinally and as a natural food preservative. To keep those oils in the leaves, farmers often trim the flowers from the plant as it is growing. Basil oil is great for fighting colds, viruses, and ear infections. It can also help repel insects, enhance your mood, and relax your muscles.