Holy basil

Holy basil, Ocimum sanctum (also O. tenuiflorum, O. gratissimum), is a highly aromatic and tasty plant with adaptogenic properties. It has become very popular as a medicinal tea for uplifting the spirits, promoting mental clarity, increasing concentration as well as anxiety, stress, headaches, arthritis, diabetes, asthma, bronchitis, sinusitis, colds and coughs.




Tulsi, tulasi, surasa, sacred basil


Leaves (roots and seeds as well in Ayurveda)


Holy basil is native to India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. However it is also found in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar, southern China and Thailand


There are several types of holy basil:

Rama (Ocimum sanctum) – Most common variety, smaller, deep green leaves, purple stems (1 cm or half an inch thick), white to purplish flowers. Cultivated in the Indian plains, private homes and gardens. Grows 90 cm (3 ft) tall.
Krishna (Ocimum tenuiflorum) – Large dark green to purple leaves, stems and flowers. It can grow over 1,80 m (6 ft) tall and 1,50 m (5 ft) wide with stems over 5 cm (2 in) thick.
Vana (O. gratissimum) – A highly aromatic, forest growing variety with green leaves and stems and white flowers. Grows wild in Asia.

Height: 30-60 cm (12-24 in) – when grown as an annual
Width: 30 cm (1 ft) – when grown as an annual
Flowers: Purplish
Leaves: Green or purple, highly aromatic, oval and slightly toothed
Blooms: From late spring to late summer


Holy basil can be cultivated as an annual in most places.

Hardiness: Zone 10 and warmer
Propagation: Seed
Germination: Very easy. For great results, sow indoors in a small container. Cover the seeds lightly with earth and place the container on a warm surface such as a heating mat. If night temperatures are too low, holy basil will germinate and also grow slowly. Plant out in the garden after the danger of frost has passed. If you live in an area plagued by cold night temperatures even in summer, you can grow holy basil in a green house or cold frame.
Space: 30 cm (12 in)
Soil: Average to moist
pH: 5.5-6.5 but tolerates more acidic as well as alkaline soils
Exposure: Full sun
Pests: Aphids
Garden Design: Combine holy basil with other aromatic herbs such as oregano, marjoram and thyme.
Companion planting: Holy basil contains saponins making it, therefore, a superb companion plant for cucumbers, tomatoes, fennel, zucchini and cabbage.


Holy basil provides us with several harvests per year: simply cut back the mature plant to 20 cm (about 8 in) and let it regrow. Cut back the early flowers to encourage the plant to produce more vegetative growth.


Place the leaves on a flat surface in a well ventilated room to dry. You can also use a dehydrator set at 35 Celsius (95 F). When the leaves are crisp, store them in a airtight container away from light.


Essential oils (eugenol, carvacol, linalool, caryophylline, methyleugenol), triterpenes (ursolic acid), flavonoids


Adaptogen, antioxidant, antimicrobial, anxiolytic, antidepressant, carminative, diuretic, expectorant, immunomodulator, neuroprotective, radioprotective


Warm, dry


Pungent, astringent


Similar to cloves, peppermint, lemon, or licorice


Holy basil is a wonderful adaptogenic plant used for uplifting, promoting mental clarity and increasing concentration. It is also good for anxiety, stress, headaches, arthritis, diabetes, asthma, bronchitis, sinusitis, colds and coughs.

Ayurveda: used to promote life and perfect health (rasayana),and to promote the balance of the chakras of the body.

In India, holy basil tea is used as an expectorant for excessive bronchial mucus and bronchitis, and upset stomach. The powdered leaves are used for nasal congestion.

The roots are used to lower fevers caused by malaria (decoction), and for insect bites and stings (poultice of fresh roots).

The seeds contain mucilage and can be used for pain in the urinary tract.

Used internally for:

  • mental clarity and concentration
  • anxiety
  • stress
  • headaches
  • arthritis
  • type 2 diabetes (as an adjunct)
  • asthma and bronchitis
  • sinusitis
  • colds
  • coughs
  • upset stomach
  • fever caused by malaria (decoction of roots)

Topic application for:

  • insect bites and stings (poultice of fresh roots)

Recommended daily dosage

Tincture: 1:5 or 1:2): 40-60 drops, three times per day
Tea: 1 tsp dried leaves per 230 ml (about 8 US fl oz) hot water. Steep, covered, for 5-10 minutes. Drink 2-3 times per day.

  • infusion
  • tincture
  • powder
  • juice
  • capsules
  • cosmetics

Holy basil makes for a superb pesto! The fresh leaves can be added to salads for extra pungency. In Thai cuisine, holy basil is used in a dish called phat kaphrao which is a stir-fry of Thai holy basil with meats, seafood or with rice (khao phat kaphrao).


Holy basil may speed up the elimination of some medications (it can enhance CYP-450 activity)


Due to contradictory studies, holy basil should be avoided during pregnancy. Since it may have an anti-fertility effect, it should also the avoided by women who are trying to get pregnant.


Uses of holy basil essential oil

Holy basil essential oil is obtained from the distillation of leaves and flowering tops.


Body: antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, heart-tonic, analgesic, antispasmodic, immunomodulator, expectorant, nervine, febrifuge, digestive, carminative
Mind: nervine, fortifying, antidepressant, anxiolytic, restorative, uplifting, clearing

Holy basil essential oil can be:

  • added to creams and lotions for insect bites and stings
  • diffused in a room

Effects on the body:

  • insect bites (and repellent)
  • rheumatism
  • gout
  • muscle pain
  • colds
  • coughs
  • sinusitis
  • bronchitis
  • upset stomach (dyspepsia), gas, nausea
  • fever

Effects on the mind:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • fatigue
  • insomnia
  • migraine
  • nervous tension


Color: light yellow
Viscosity: thin
Aroma: balsamic, clove-like, slightly spicy, fresh
Aroma intensity: high
Note: middle or top note
Blends well with: bergamot, clary sage, geranium, citronella

Side effects and contra-indications of holy basil essential oil: None when used correctly

Holy basil

Winston, D. Maimes, S. 2007. Adaptogens: Herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Rochester: Healing Arts Press
Khalsa, K. Tierra, Michael. 2008. The way of Ayurvedic herbs. Twin Lakes: Lotus Press
Werner, M. Von Braunschweig, R. 2005. Praxis Aromatherapie. 5th edition. Stuttgart: Haug

Learn how to grow a gorgeous medicinal and culinary garden with Giovanna Becker

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