Basking in the Glory of Basil

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a frost-tender annual to perennial herb that is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), along with beebalm, giant hyssop, ground ivy, lavender, marjoram, oregano,  perilla, rosemary, sage, savory, skullcap, spearmintthyme, and wild bergamot. The family also (surprisingly) includes chia, and (even more surprisingly) coleus and teak. Basil is also known as St. Joseph’s wort.

The genus Ocimum is most diverse in Africa, so that is probably where basil first appeared. It eventually spread to India  over 5,000 years ago, where it was probably first cultivated, and where the plant was considered a sacred herb and a powerful protector. It was often planted around temples and laid with the dead. From there (according to Tom Stobart in his 1977 book Herbs, Spices, and Flavourings) it made its way to the Middle East. It migrated westward as whole plants, since it could be grown easily indoors away from frost exposure. Basil’s written history begins 4,000 years ago in Egypt, where accounts indicate that it was grown and used as an embalming and preserving herb.

Perhaps because of its embalming use, basil was also a symbol of mourning in Greece. The word basil comes from the Greek basileus, “king,” possibly because the herb was once used by ancient royalty. In ancient Greece, it was known as basilikon phuton, meaning royal herb.  The ancient Greek writer Dioskurides knew sweet basil as okimon (“fragrant [plant]“), from which botanists derive the the Latin genus name Ocimum.

Theophrastus, around 300 BC, mentions basil in his Enquiry Into Plants. According to the Roman writer Pliny, the ancient Romans believed that the more basil is cursed when you are planting it, the better its seeds will sprout and the seedlings prosper. This is likely the origin of the French phrase semer le basilic [sow the basil] meaning “to rant” or “to slander.” 

Sweet basil was grown in the Hunan region of China in 907 AD. 

Because basil does not grow well in the presence of rue, and because rue was thought to be “an enemy to poisons,” some medieval European physicians thought basil was poisonous. Scorpions often sought to rest under basil pots, and somehow people began to believe that a sprig of basil left on its own underneath a pot would eventually turn into a scorpion, according to the 1971 book,  A Modern Herbal: I – Z, Volume 2, by Maude Grieve. Some medieval doctors took this superstition so far as to caution that smelling basil would breed scorpions in the brain. Perhaps because of these superstitions, basil was considered an emblem of the devil in Crete and was placed on most window ledges as a charm against his influence, according to Thomas Firminger Thiselton-Dyer in his 1889 book, The Folk-lore of Plants.

As with many other areas of science, Arabs continued to move forward while much of Europe remained mired in superstion. Ibn al-Awwam was an Arab agriculturist who flourished at Seville in Spain about the end of the 12th century. He wrote a treatise on agriculture in Arabic called Kitab al-Filaha (Book on Agriculture). He mentions many kinds of basil with instructions for growing them. Ibn al-Bayṭār, was a Muslim scientist, botanist, pharmacist, and physician born in the Andalusian city of Málaga at the end of the 12th century, whose main contribution was to systematically record the discoveries made by Islamic physicians in the Middle Ages, which added between 300 and 400 types of medicine to the one thousand previously known since antiquity. He mentions several types of basil used in medicine.

As with many other delicious vegetables and herbs, sweet basil was reportedly introduced to French cooking by Catherine de Medici when she married the French King Henri II in 1533, and later in the century it arrived in Britain, probably from France. Sir Francis Bacon, credited with creating the scientific method, wrote in his 1622 work, Historia Naturalis, “It is strange which is reported that basil too much exposed to the sun doth turn into wild thyme.”

Seventeenth-century herbalists began to recommend basil. Nicholas Culpeper touted basil as a remedy for scorpion stings, and John Parkinson recommended sweet basil as an antidepressant “to procure a cheerfull and merry hearte” (Paradisus in Sole, Paradisus Terrestris, 1629). French cooks in the court of Louis XIV recommended the herb for use in soups, ragouts, and as the basis for the addictive garlic herb sauce pistou, known in southern Italy as pesto. In Victorian times, it was sent for best wishes in nosegays. In Italy, basil is considered a sign of love. When a woman puts out a pot of basil, it means she is ready to receive her suitor. In France, it is called herbe royale. In Romania, tradition connects basil with blessings, love, and marriage. In India, holy basil is also known as Tulsi, and in Hinduism, it is the reincarnation of Lakshmi, the wife of the god Vishnu. Lakshmi brings wealth, luck, happiness, and blessings to weddings  According to Maud Grieve, “Every good Hindu goes to his rest with a Basil leaf on his breast. This is his passport to Paradise.” Basil is often considered a love token and is planted on graves in Iran, Malaysia, and Egypt.

Basil reached North America in the seventeenth century. It was offered for sale in the Virginia Gazette in 1775, and it was listed in John Bartram’s 1783 broadside Catalogue of American Trees, Shrubs and Herbacious Plants . By 1806, according to Bernard M’Mahon, plant procurer for Thomas Jefferson, the herb was already well-known in the young United States. In Mexico, it’s supposed to keep a lover’s eyes off others. It is considered a powerful protector in Haiti. 

During the 19th century, basil fell out of fashion in English-speaking countries outside of Italian and other immigrant communities. For many years most home gardeners in North America and Britain considered basil an exotic. In 1912 British herb enthusiast Lady Rosalind Northcote extolled basil’s virtues, lamenting, “Basil is too much neglected nowadays” (The Book of Herbs). According to Stobart, as late as 1970, the British Ministry of Agriculture assessed sweet basil as being “now of little or no importance…In English and American markets basil as a fresh herb is nowadays very uncommon.”  The cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s popularized “foreign” Mediterranean and Asian cooking, and today, basil has had a resurgence. Among North American consumers of fresh herbs, sweet basil ranks number one in popularity.

Basil has two major phytonutrients: flavonoids and volatile oils. Basil can:

  • Protect your DNAThe unique array of antioxidant flavonoids found in basil provide protection at the cellular level. Orientin and vicenin are two water-soluble flavonoids in basil. In studies on human white blood cells; these components of basil protect cell structures and chromosomes from radiation and oxygen-based damage. 
  • Fight infectionThe volatile oils in basil, which contain estragole, linalool, cineole, eugenol, sabinene, myrcene, and limonene, protect against unwanted  growth of numerous bacteria, including : Listeria monocytogenesStaphylococcus aureusEscherichia coli O:157:H7Yersinia enterocolitica, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Essential oil from basil leaves inhibit strains of bacteria from the genera StaphylococcusEnterococcus and Pseudomonas, all of which are widespread and highly resistant to antibiotics. Washing produce in solution containing just 1% basil essential oil reduces the number of Shigella, an infectious bacteria that triggers diarrhea and may cause significant, undetected intestinal damage. It makes good sense to include basil and thyme in more of your recipes, particularly for foods that are eaten raw, such as salads. Adding fresh basil to your next vinaigrette will not only enhance the flavor of your fresh greens, but will help ensure that the fresh produce you consume is safe to eat. Basil is also noted for its potential anti-viral properties.
  • Fight inflammationThe eugenol component of basil’s volatile oils can block the activity of an enzyme in your body called cyclooxygenase (COX). Many  over-the-counter non-steriodal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS), including aspirin and ibuprofen, work by inhibiting this same enzyme. This enzyme-inhibiting effect of the eugenol in basil qualifies basil as an anti-inflammatory food that can provide relief for people with health problems like rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel conditions.
  • Fight cancer: Basil also contains another anti-inflammatory phytochemical, the hydroxycinnamic acid caffeic acid, which may also help fight cervical and prostate cancer. Apigenin, a flavone in basil exerts anxiety-reducing effects and fights breast cancer.
  • Promote cardiovascular healthBasil is a very good source of carotenoids such as beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is a more powerful anti-oxidant than retinoid vitamin A and protects epithelial cells (the cells that form the lining of numerous body structures including your blood vessels) from free radical damage. It also helps prevent free radicals from oxidizing cholesterol in your blood stream. Oxidized cholesterol builds up on blood vessel walls, causing atherosclerosis, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. The beta-carotene in basil may also help to slow the progression of asthma, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis while protecting cells from further damage. Basil is also a good source of magnesium, which promotes cardiovascular health by prompting muscles and blood vessels to relax, thus improving blood flow and lessening the risk of irregular heart rhythms or a spasms of the heart muscle or a blood vessel.

Basil is an excellent source of vitamin K, manganese, vitamin Airon, and vitamin C, a very good source of calcium, magnesium, folate, tryptophan, and vitamin B6. In addition, basil is a good source of zinc, phosphorous, protein, potassium, niacin, riboflavin, and fiber.

Nutrients in 3.5 ounces (100 grams) Fresh Basil

Nutrient

Amount

DV

vitamin K

414.8 mcg

395%

manganese

1.148 mg

55%

vitamin A

264 mcg

33%

beta carotene

3142 mcg

29%

iron

3.17 mg

24%

vitamin C

18 mg

22%

calcium

117 mg

18%

magnesium

64 mg

18%

folate

68 mcg

17%

tryptophan

39 mg

12.1%

vitamin B6

0.155 mg

12.0%

zinc

.81 mg

9%

phosphorous

56 mg

8%

protein

3.15 g

6%

potassium

295 mg

6%

niacin

0.902 mg

6%

riboflavin

0.076 mg

6%

fiber

1.6 g

5.7%

vitamin E

0.80 mg

5%

thiamine

0.074 mg

3%

choline

11.4 mg

2%

Calories

22

1.1%

Whenever possible, choose fresh, organic basil over dried, because it is superior in flavor. The leaves of fresh basil should look vibrant and be deep green or purple in color. They should be free from dark spots or yellowing. When purchasing dried basil, try to select organically grown basil, because this will give you more assurance that it has not been irradiated. Among other potential adverse effects, irradiating basil may lead to a significant decrease in its vitamin C and carotenoid content.

Store fresh basil in the refrigerator wrapped in a slightly damp towel. You can also freeze it, either whole or chopped, in airtight containers or in ice cube trays covered with either water or vegetable broth. You can then add a cube or two to soups, stews, or dressings. Dried basil should be kept in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark, dry place where it will keep fresh for about six months.

Because the oils in basil are highly volatile, it is best to add it near the end of the cooking process, so it will retain its maximum flavor.

To enjoy basil:

  • Combine fresh chopped basil with garlic and olives to make a healthy pesto that can top a variety of dishes including pasta and whole wheat brushetta.
  • Layer fresh basil leaves over tomato slices and vegan mozzarella, tofu, or avocado to create a colorful and delicious caprese salad.
  • Give your stir-fries a Thai flair by adding basil to eggplant, cabbage, chili peppers, tofu, and cashews.
  • Purée basil, olives, and onions in a food processor or blender and add to tomato soups.
  • Enjoy a warm cup of invigorating basil tea by infusing chopped basil leaves in boiling water for eight minutes.

This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this blog to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

22 thoughts on “Basking in the Glory of Basil

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