Tulsi - Holy Basil
Ocimum sanctum/ Ocimum tenuiflorum
Sprouting from the family Lamiaceae, delivering us our mint, lavender, rosemary, thyme and numerous other aromatic herbaceous garden treats, Tulsi, also commonly known as Holy Basil, possesses an array of medicinal, culinary and other uses.
There are three main varieties of Tulsi plants, which include Rama (Ocimum sanctum – green/light leaf), Shyama or Krishna (Ocimum tenuiflorum – purple/dark leafed variety), and Vana (wild leaf) Tulsi. Each plant has distinctive veined leaves and tall violet flower spikes.
Historically revered, examination of the research makes it apparent how Tulsi came to be honoured. Offering something pretty special for everyone, it presents the promotion of optimum health physically, emotionally and spiritually, with additional environmental benefits thrown in too. Have a read and discover some ways in which this plant may benefit your garden and life.
A holy history
Tulsi’s status far exceeds that of most plants in history. Ascribed in ancient Vedic scriptures as a “protector of life”, Tulsi’s reputation has foreseen benefits to all humans across their lifespan, additionally helping animals and the environment.
Originating in India, and documented in their mythology from times immemorial, Tulsi now grows wildly mostly in Asia, across parts of China, and in northern and eastern regions of Africa. Incorporated across millennia into daily medicinal and spiritual practices of Ayurvedic medicine, and general lifestyle cultures in India, Tulsi has also played a very significant role with ancient healers of Greece and Rome, and in Hindu traditions. Hindus, determining Tulsi to be particularly sacred, planted it around their shrines, and heralded and worshipped it with awe reserved for that which they esteemed natural ‘Goddess’ material. In fact they believed it to be the incarnation of Lakshimi, wife of Vishnu, the deity responsible for wealth and prosperity in both material and spiritual senses, offering an “elixir of life”. Tulsi was used ceremoniously in Hinduism, as well as in some Greek Orthodox churches, to create “Holy water”.
Donned with additional titles across time including “The Incomparable One”, “Queen of Herbs”, and “Mother of Medicine”, as these names suggest Tulsi’s qualities and applications throughout history have had attributes both spiritual and medicinal in nature. Every part of the plant from leaves, stems, flowers, to seeds and roots were revered. Wood of the stems and the seeds were used to fashion beads adopted to enable mental focus during meditation, and for devotional practices such as chanting to foster a connective bridge between mind, body and spirit awareness. Even the surrounding soil was considered sacred. It has since been discovered that the soil surrounding Tulsi harbours beneficial endophytic fungi, offering protection from herbivore pests. This validates the historical worship extending beyond the plant into the soil.
Throughout time Tulsi has been used in management of several Ayurvedic diseases, and its prescription, both internally and externally, has been applied to a broad spectrum of other conditions and complaints.
Primary historical applications included arthritis, back pain, headaches, fever, common colds, bronchitis; digestive issues from hiccups, vomiting, diarrhoea and dysentery; skin conditions including infectious skin diseases such as ringworm; and disorders of the eye, ear, heart and genitourinary systems. It was said to penetrate deep tissues and to dry excretions, with applications therefore deemed useful in treating throat infections, ailments of the respiratory system, nasal lesions, and skin disease. Tulsi was also a key treatment used for various bites including those of scorpions and snakes. With an additional extensive history in the Orient, there Tulsi was valued in the treatment of stress, particularly stressors of such intensity resulting in anxiety, or emotional, mental and physical depletion and burnout.
Additional traditional herbal wisdoms of Tulsi saw it providing lustre to the complexion, fostering physical beauty and sweetness of voice; endowing stamina and intelligence; and granting a calm and balanced emotional disposition. Tulsi was commonly used with other medicinal herbs to enhance its bioavailability and effectiveness.
Tulsi has traditionally been associated with ability to cleanse the air and soil. It has been planted on large scales in different cities to combat air pollution. Among these locations is India’s Taj Mahal, where countless numbers of this herb were planted as a further method to protect the marble structures from environmental degradation.
The science of less stress
Tulsi presents us with a complex range of phyto-constituents, providing a myriad of pharmacological properties. An emerging evidence-base has begun to back up much of Tulsi’s traditional reputation for providing protection to the body’s cells, their contents, membranes, and our organs from a range of external and internally derived stressors. This includes physical stress brought onto the body by means of excessive physical exertion or restraint; extremes such as cold and noise; and ischaemia – or insufficient oxygen to the tissues. Tulsi has also demonstrated protecting organs and tissues from environmental toxicants, such as industrial pollutants and heavy metals, including lead, mercury and cadmium. Research has shown prevention against chemically-induced cancers of liver, breast, mouth, lung, gastric and other origins. Coined provider of “internal housekeeping”, some validation is granted to hisorical notions that Tulsi presents a ‘tonic’ for the body, mind and spirit.
Antioxidative protective prowess
The majority of scientific medicinal applications appear at least indirectly associated with Tulsi conferring powerful antioxidant abilities. It may therefore be no surprise that its phytochemical profile comprises a wide range of powerful antioxidants. Among these are numerous polyphenols, including flavonoids and flavones such as rosmarinic acid, catechins, apigenin, carnosic acid and luteolin. These operate independently, and synergistically to provide protective and preventative effects. Although there have been limited human trials, numerous animal and experimental studies have presented these effects occurring via increased levels of the body’s natural antioxidant molecule glutathione, and enhanced activity of antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase and catalase.
A range of catechins and flavonoids are found in Tulsi, which are water soluble, and can therefore be enjoyed beneficially as tea. Catechins have been shown to independently confer free-radical and nitrogen species-scavenging abilities, and to also chelate redox-active transmissions, thereby demonstrating protection against radiation-induced DNA damages. The flavonoid component, of which Tulsi contains orintin and vicenin, have demonstrated protection of mice against gamma radiation-induced sickness and mortality, with selective protection of normal tissues from tumour-promoting effects of radiation. Further antioxidative mechanisms of protection have also been associated with altering gene expression; inducing apoptosis or programmed cell death; inhibiting angiogenesis, thereby limiting development of blood supply to cancerous tissues; and prevention of metastasis, or spread of cancerous tissues.
Eugenol, a phenylpropene is another key antioxidant constituent in Tulsi, which is mostly known as the main active ingredient in clove oil. It confers protective effects against a range of internally derived free radicals, such as superoxides and lipid peroxidation, working by reducing the oxidative stress that these generate, while simultaneously reducing inflammation, and attenuating metastatic cell developments.
Antioxidant activities also play a role in Tulsi’s ability to help with adaptation to stress. Physiological stress, brought on by bodily extremes or toxicity, produce psychological stress, and Tulsi has shown able to counter the effects of such stressors by improving stress resistance. Animal studies have demonstrated Tulsi increasing aerobic metabolism and swimming time, while normalising other physiological and biochemical parameters that were otherwise heightened by physical stressors. Further research with mice demonstrated improvements in separate brain regions of neurotransmitters and oxidative stress levels, showing central nervous system depressance.
A biologically active triterpenoid component known as ursolic acid, is at least in part responsible for Tulsi acting as an ‘adaptogen’. Its presence together with other key phyto-constituents help to promote inner homeostasis or psychological balance. Ayurvedic medicine has long recognised Tulsi’s adaptogenic qualities, especially in its abilities to nurture the central nervous system, nourishing the mind, body and spirit, fostering relaxation, wellbeing and a calming that brings into effect clarity of thought. These effects have been demonstrated in clinical trials, demonstrating enhanced psychological wellbeing related to improvements in memory, cognitive function, and counteraction of depression and anxiety.
Tulsi has also been shown to counter metabolic stresses and abnormalities, with applications in helping to prevent weight gain. It has demonstated normalising blood glucose, blood lipid levels and blood pressure; and improve insulin secretions and action, reducing insulin resistance, cortisol and blood sugar related inflammation. It has also been shown to inhibit 5-lipoxygenase, a common body marker of inflammation. Animal studies have shown protection to the liver and kidney from metabolic damages caused by high blood sugar. There is growing evidence revealling immuno-modulating effects, with improved immune responses seen in both stressed and non-stressed animals. Benefical effects over time in asthma have also been reported.
Tulsi confers broad spectrum antimicrobial against a host of human and animal pathogens including viruses, bacteria, fungus, worms and protozoa. Eugenol, eucalyptol and camphor comprise three essential oil constituents chiefly responsible for these activities. Human trials have demonstated protection against a range of infections either topically or internally. This includes urinary tract infections, skin wounds and infections, including fungal infections, various pneumonias, tuberculosis, chlorea, herpes simplex and gonorrhoea, and also mosquito borne diseases such as dengue and malaria. Tulsi has been found to confer further analgesic, anti-fever, anti-allergic, anti-tussive, mucolytic, anti-spasmodic, and wound healing support, with anti-ulcer and ulcer healing properties demonstrated in animal studies.
Effectiveness has also been presented against Streptococcus mutans: the bacterium responsible for tooth decay. Tulsi has been used effectively in clinical trials as a herbal mouth wash to attenuate bad breath, gum disease and mouth ulcers. It has been used in animal rearing to reduce the incidence of infections in cows, goats, poultry and fish. Its inhibition of water and food borne pathogens makes it a natural option for food preservation.
Tulsi contains ascorbic acid (vitamin C), carotene (vitamin A), calcium, iron, and selenium, as well as zinc, manganese, sodium, and further nutrient trace elements.
An annual plant in Mediterranean regions and a perennial in more temperate climates, Tulsi relishes full sun with minimal shade, and light to sandy, fertile, well-drained soil. It grows up to 70cm tall and consumes a similar width of space.
Seeds should be planted following the final frost, pressed directly into the soil at least a quarter inch deep, and keep moist, however avoiding excess water to avoid diseases of dampness. Alternatively, seedlings can be raised in sunny indoor locations before the final frost, transplanting into the soil when about three inches tall. Mulch should be applied when of a similar height to contain moisture, control weeds and moderate the temperature. Tulsi will also grow well in large pots in sunny positions.
Where growing Tulsi for medicinal and culinary usage, they should be planted in a clean environment that is free from pollutions, and grown organically. This is because there has been found to be twice the amount of toxic residues in the leaves of Tulsi in polluted areas.
Tulsi relishes decent trimmings, promoting a flourishing of bushy foliage. Removing no more than half the stems, pinch or clip back after about six weeks leaving two leaves on each stem to encourage lateral leaf growth.
Harvesting thy Holy
Harvesting should be undertaken before the first Autumn frost when the leaves are plentiful and the flowers buds have formed. When the flowers bloom, leaf production ceases. Pluck large single leaves, or cut entire branches. Collect these in a basket, storing in a cool, dry place, tossing them every few days until they become dry and crumbly when crushed.
The best part is, the more leaves that are harvested, the more will grow, and the more it will flourish.
The kitchen and at home with Tulsi
Each plant’s flavour profile subject to climatic and soil conditions in their grown region. Typically the green and purple are the key medicinal types, and the purple leafed variety is considered more medicinally potent than the green.
Generally the leaves are the most commonly plant part used medicinally; however the seeds and other plant parts are also edible. Like common basil, the purple leaves possess more of a distinctive peppery, bitter taste, best accompanying stir-fries, spicy soups, other spicy dishes and pestos. By comparison the green leaf variety is better known for a more cooling and mellower flavour that may do better to accompany salads and desserts.
Consider home recipes for a hand sanitiser, mosquito/insect repellent, mouthwash, water purifying agent, or an agent for food and herbal material preservation. It may also be a thoughtful inclusion in the traveller’s health kit. Fresh juice of the leaves can be inserted into the ears for treating earache.
*but remember, Tulsi that is used in culinary or other preparations should be grown in clean environments that are free from pollution and toxicants!
Tulsi for tea: dosage and safety consideration
Infuse up to two teaspoon of Tulsi per cup of almost boiling water, cover and steep for five to ten minutes.
Although Tulsi is considered a safe herb, with a lack of safety data, and no known contraindications, it is always recommended that a qualified healthcare practitioner is consulted before using therapeutic doses of any herbal products. This requirement is increased, with supervision being required during pregnancy, nursing, or while taking additional medications.
Taking time with Tulsi
Without a doubt, modern life presents numerous stressors in many shapes and forms that give rise to challenges on a day to day basis. Over time, with chronic stress, we begin to appear frazzled and weary, and our vitality is compromised. At the same time our blood sugar regulating abilities diminish, and we experience problems with our digestive and immune system function. We face increasing need for antioxidants, because chronic stress promotes the production and proliferation of free radicals, generating further bodily fatigue, and in turn creating more stress.
At such times we are required to stop, take deep breaths, centre ourselves, and think about what it is like to be in a state of calm, stress-free, restful awareness and vitality. Challenges that appeared insurmountable during periods of stress, are met and can be overcome with greater ease; our bodies operate much more optimally, and we perform our functions as human being more effortlessly. We are equipped during these times with increased stress resistance, and enhanced physical and mental endurance and resilience. We have greater energy to take greater care of our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs.
Including Tulsi into the daily routine is thought to aid longevity, by not only promoting general health and enhancing wellbeing, but by helping to prevent disease and counter the degree and effects of daily living stress. Heading into nature, or simply into a clean garden with Tulsi may illuminate a metaphor for how ancient knowledge presents a solution to modern problems. Nature and Tulsi offer balance and clarity, and means and ways to recognise greater wellness across all domains. Like one of permaculture’s key concepts of least input for maximum yield, Tulsi may begin to provide some key insights for many positive ways forward. Some extremely worthy herb for thought!