Basil – Ocimum spp.
Herbs are often included in the permaculture design process and constitute a vital role in the garden for integrated pest management and bee fodder. They are also included because of their culinary properties and find themselves located near to the kitchen for easy access. However, these ‘culinary’ herbaceous plants are often underutilised as medicines. It is curious that many plants, and spices, get labelled as ‘culinary’ without much heed paid to their highly valuable medicinal properties. This series of articles aims to provide precise, simple information on how to use more medicinal plants in the permaculture garden. Knowing how to use medicinal plants and using locally available plants for medicine is an integral part of building self-sufficiency and resilience. Herbal medicine is part and parcel of a holistic, low-tech approach to sustainability.
The first in this series is the wonderful plant Basil. This well-loved plant, familiar to many, is highly valued in traditional medicine disciplines. It is native to India, where it was domesticated and cultivated for more than 5,000 years (2). There are more than 150 varieties (1) and 160 named cultivars with more added each year (2) around the globe. There are both garden and wild varieties (3). It is commonly used in Italian and Southeast Asian cuisine. This strongly aromatic plant growing to 50cm has shiny oval leaves, square stems and small white flowers growing in whorls (1). It is predominantly an annual, though it does exist as a perennial in some warmer, tropical climates. From personal observation, the wild perennials tend to have much thicker, coarse leaves and woodier stems, similar in morphology to basil’s cousins: lavender and rosemary (same family). The word basil stems from the Greek basileus, meaning ‘king’ (5), lending associations of greatness, power, superiority and boldness.
It is the aerial parts — all parts above ground — that are used to make medicine, and especially the leaves. The essential oil of basil is also highly utilised. 80 different chemical constituents in the variety O.basilicum have been identified (7), dominated by the presence of volatile oils (around 1%) (1). Predominantly these are composed of linalol (54.95%), methylchavikol (11.98%), methylcinnamat and linolen (8) as well as citral, eugenol and geraniol (9). The proportions and variations of the volatile oils are affected by seasonal variation (10) and geography (11).
There is scientific evidence showing strong anti-bacterial (12 & 13), antioxidant (14), anti-viral (15), cytoprotective (16) and anti-microbial properties (17 & 18) of the essential oils occurring in basil plants. Traditionally Basil’s main indications focus on complaints associated with the digestive and nervous system because of mildly sedative and anti-bacterial actions (1). It is used as a tea for indigestion, vomiting and nausea (19), flatulence, stomach cramps, colic (1), fevers, colds and flu, kidney and bladder troubles, and headaches (19). It is great tonic to use for nervous irritability, depression, anxiety and difficulty sleeping (1). As quoted in Henriette Kress’ website (3), “their smell comforts the brain … expel melancholy, or sadness of mind”. In the Tropics Basil is known for its wide range of anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties and can be used to treat malaria (20).
I know … this all sounds great, but how to use it practically?! As a herbalist, I have found this to be a major stumbling block for many people who wish to use medicinal plants more, but just don’t know how. Well, this plant can be used in the following ways, using the following preparation methods*:
As the leaves have strong anti-microbial, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, and aid digestion, it is a great plant to incorporate into the diet as regularly as possible. As Hippocrates stated: "Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food". It can be included as a salad leaf or as the more traditional preparation of pesto. A large summer harvest can be preserved by pureeing basil in a food processor with a little bit of water, pop the puree into ice cube trays and freeze. Once frozen pop the cubes into a plastic freezer bag. The cubes can then be used as and when needed for a wide variety of dishes and even to make fresh pesto (21).
2. Fresh herb tea
For fever, flatulence, to ease digestion, colds and flu and a tonic drink take 1 handful of fresh leaves (whoever shall drink the tea needs to use their hand-size), wash them and place in 1L of boiled water. Cover with a lid (this is very important to retain all the volatile oils) and leave to draw for 5-10 minutes. Strain and drink in equal proportions through the day. For a ‘quick fix’, take a few leaves (~5), wash them and add one cup of boiled water. Cover, brew for 5-10 minutes and drink.
3. Dried herb tea
1 teaspoon of high quality dried herb in one cup of boiled water, covered 5-10 minutes, brewed, strain and drink 1-3 times per day.
4. As a poultice
Whilst working in Zimbabwe with natural medicine I met a group of wonderful women running a formal natural medicine clinic. They had developed a highly effective wound dressing made from fresh herbs that included basil. The dressing treated a wide variety of fungal and bacterial wounds that were otherwise difficult to treat and heal using orthodox medicines. These wounds ranged from bacterial (probably staphylococcus) infections to diabetic ulcers. It comprised the following plants:
- 3 leaves Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis)
- 3 bulbs garlic (Allium sativum)
- 6 nasturtium leaves (Tropaeolum majus)
- 3 branches of basil (wild or cultivated)
- 3 big comfrey leaves (Symphytum officinalis)
- 3 pieces bulbinella (Bulbinella spp.)
Cut the fresh herbs and wash them. Put them in a food processor or pestle and mortar. Liquidise. Strain off the liquid through a cloth or fine sieve. Compost the plant matter. Soak gauze with the solution and apply the gauze directly to open area of wound. Cover with dry gauze and dress with a crepe bandage. Change the dressing twice per day, re-make the dressing fresh everyday and re-apply everyday until the wound is healed. Once the wound has closed at least 70%, dress the wound once per day. Keep the mixture cool or refrigerated for one day’s use.
5. Essential oil
Used in an oil burner or diffuser, basil essential oil is great to clear the mind, stimulate the brain and eliminate mental fatigue. Blended with other oils for massage (for it has a known synergistic effect – enhancing the actions of other herbs) such as lavender, it is effective in reducing tired, tight and over worked muscles. It is therefore indicated for people doing a lot of physical activity, athletes and dancers (22).
*Disclaimer: the information provided here is not intended to replace information provided by a medical health professional or for the treatment of serious medical conditions. Consult your physician or health provider with any questions regarding medical conditions.
- Chevalier, A. (1996) Encyclopaedia of Medicinal Plants. Dorling Kindersley, UK
- Simon, Quinn, Murray 1990
- Koba, K., Poutouli, P.W., Raynaud, C., Chaumont, JP., and Sanda, K. 2009. Chemical composition and antimicrobial properties of different basil essential oils chemotypes from Togo. The Journal of Bangladesh Pharmacological Society; 4: 1-8
- Tierra, M., 1980. The Way of Herbs. Pocket Books.
- Hirt, H.M., M’Pia, B. (2008) Third Edition. Natural Medicine in the Tropics I: Foundation Text. Anamed
- Davis, P. (1999). Aromatherapy an A-Z. Vermilion, UK.
Lucie Bradley is a medical herbalist, ethnobotanist and amateur permaculturalist.