Over the weekend I purchased a Tulasi plant (Ocimum tenuifolium, prev Ocimum sanctum) known as sacred, or holy basil. The plant is renowned as the most sacred of Indian plants, having great medicinal properties as well as being highly auspicious to have in the garden.
I became familiar with this plant after receiving a Rotary scholarship to India in 1999 to study landscape architecture and urban design in that country. It was a great experience and I thoroughly enjoyed my trip, learning a great deal about these professions and the projects being undertaken in the country. I also learnt about Vastu Shastra, which is the traditional way of designing buildings and gardens. I stayed with Indian families and learnt about their day to day life. I particularly enjoyed the food, it was delicious, varied and each meal was a special experience.
Plants and gardens are very much a part of Indian life. Most gardens have a vegetable garden as well as having ornamental areas. Even the smallest courtyard have plants. Many of these plants are sacred and of special significance to the household. Although plants may vary, every garden has a Tulasi plant. Usually it grew in a pot in the centre of the courtyard, where each morning it would be worshipped in a short but special ceremony. Two forms are grown, the green leaved form (Rama Tulasi) and a purplish-black form (Krishna Tulasi). Plants form an open upright bush with paired, undulate leaves attached to square stems.
Tulasi is a symbol of love and fidelity. It is said to cure diseases of the body mind and spirit and to purify the air, body, mind and soul. It is widely used as a medicinal plant in India.
I had always wanted to grow this plant. It makes sense to grow a plant that is held in such high esteem by so much of the world’s population. However this is not a plant you see too often in Australia, although other basils are often sold by this name. I finally was able to buy a plant and some Tulasi oil after going to see the Indian spiritual leader Amma who was visiting Brisbane during her tour of Australia. She is known as the ‘hugging saint’ and famous for her amazing, life-changing hugs. The opportunity to see her in Brisbane rather than in India was not to be missed.
Basils do exceptionally well in Brisbane and other coastal areas of the subtopics. They thrive in the moist humid summers and mild dry winters.
Culinary basils are my favourite herbs. They are delicious. I salivate when I smell their fragrance. Hence pesto, green curry and insalata Caprese are some of my favourite dishes.
I grow a few other basils in my garden. Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) self seeds on its own through garden beds. Plants grow into bushes and often live for two years. Visitors from the southern states are astonished by the size of the bushes and to see them growing through the winter months.
The Thai basil, ‘Siam Queen’ is equally vigorous and will self seed readily through the garden. This herb is very similar to the herb used in many dishes in Thailand, although a wide variety of different basils can be found in the markets there. Having recently been to Chieng Mai in northern Thailand, I was amazed to see the variety of basils available. As part of the trip I had a cooking class and learnt to cook some of the dishes made with specific basils. A basil known as ‘spicy basil’ was used in stir-fries and another basil, grown for its seeds, was used as a spice in desserts.
‘Siam Queen’ is an essential plant in my garden. As I also grow Thai chillis, lemon grass, galangal ginger, and makrut lime, Thai green curries are easy to whip up and my curry paste tastes so much better than those you purchase in a jar. I just wish I could get hold of the true Thai garlic…….
Greek basil (Ocimum minimum) is a short-lived bush that grows very vigorously. You will see plants growing in the front gardens throughout the Brisbane suburbs of West End and Highgate Hill – denoting the ethnicity of the residents. To my taste, the flavour isn’t as rich and complex as sweet basil, however it is a hardier perennial plant. It is said to have been brought to Greece from India by Alexander the Great.
‘African Blue’ basil is a large long-lived bush with dark leaves having attractively purple-marbled undersides. It seems to flower continuously and the bees simply love it. Growing readily from cuttings and being extremely hardy, it gets traded between gardeners. A good thing as it is rarely available commercially. A cross between ‘Dark Opal’ and Ocimum kilimandscharicum, the plant inherits it hardiness from the later. Generally not noted as a culinary herb, however my friend Emma Scragg makes excellent pesto using half this and half sweet basil leaves.
‘Dark Opal’ has amazing dark purplish-black leaves. It is a great plant for the ornamental garden and also has an attractive fragrance. I like to plant it around the garden each spring. It is a great asset to the ornamental vegetable garden.
Camphor basil, Ocimum kilimandscharicum, named after Mount Kilimanjaro, is a large plant. Mine is almost 2 metres high and wide. The thick hairy leaves have a slight camphor smell. It is not a culinary herb but I like to brush past the bush to release this fragrance and admire its hardiness. It also seems to repel insects.
The sacred basil plant I purchased this weekend is a Krishna Tulasi – the one with the purplish leaves. I plan to grow it in a pot. I don’t have a courtyard but there is a small enclosed garden near my bedroom where it can be located. I hope it will grow as well as the other basils in my garden and self seed profusely. I look forward to enjoying its fragrance and to using the leaves in soothing teas.
And yes Amma’s hug was amazing, as was the whole event – something I would recommend you add to your ‘bucket list’