Name: Basil: (Ocimum basilicum)
Otherwise known as: Garden Basil, Sweet Basil
Habitat: An annual or short-lived perennial member of the family Labiatea with over 150 varieties. It grows to 50cm in rich soil and has a fleshy, puckered, dark green leaf on square stems that smells strongly of cloves and produces small white aromatic flowers in summer. Originally native to southern Asia, it is now grown throughout the temperate world.
What does it do: Its name is believed to derive from the Greek for king: basileus, although some medieval herbalists attribute it to the Basilicus, a mythical serpent. This came from a belief that the plant attracted venomous creatures. Dioscorides, in Materia Medica, noted the use of basil in the treatment of scorpion stings. The Romans used it for relief of flatulence and as a remedy for food poisoning but Galen, physician to Marcus Aurelius, was strongly opposed to internal consumption.
The type commonly found in Cyprus, Ocimum minimum, a perennial bush basil is hardier but coarser in flavour. This variety is often planted in cemeteries and accounts for its unpopularity as a culinary herb in Cyprus kitchens.
Florentine and Genoese are the best known and an essential ingredient of Pesto sauce. O. crispum, which produces hand-sized leaves, makes a delicious sandwich filler. Purpureum, identified by its purple ruffles makes a most decorative mid-bedding plant.
The plant is claimed to have aphrodisiac properties and the aroma from the crushed leaves stimulates a sense of smell dulled by viral infections. It is rich in vitamins A and C, is antispasmodic, antibacterial, anti-depressant, sedative, an adrenal stimulant and a vermifuge.
Holy basil – Ocimum sanctum – is sacred to the Hindus and is planted outside temples to discourage flying insects. Basil makes an excellent mosquito repellent and should be grown close to the bedroom windows. In China it is given to women recovering from hysterectomy.
While the plant does contain a volatile oil it is now discouraged in aromatherapy because of the presence of methyl chavicol which is thought to be carcinogenic.
The Mediterranean practice of steeping basil in olive oil and vinegar will produce a perfect salad dressing. Basil should be avoided during pregnancy.
Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants