Basil (Ocimum basilicum L., 1753) is an annual herbaceous species, normally cultivated as an aromatic plant and as a spice in the kitchen or even for medicinal purposes.
Origins and History –
Basil is a plant originally from India, typically used in Italian cuisine and in Asian cuisines in Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, due to the marked scent of its leaves, which depending on the variety can be more or less sweet or pungent. Its name derives from the Greek “basileus” meaning “king’s herb”, because it is considered for the perfume among the most important of antiquity.
Columella (1st century AD) speaks of it several times as a plant to be sown in abundance “after the ides of May until the summer solstice”.
The first texts that speak of basil in the kitchen are found only from the end of the eighteenth century. The explorers of the nineteenth century reported having encountered several species of Ocimum in Africa, Persia and Tropical Asia, native or cultivated.
Among the ancient Egyptians and the Greeks, basil retained a symbolism linked to death: considered a good omen for the afterlife, it was used for embalming. The Chinese and Arabs knew its medicinal properties, while the Crusaders filled their ships to hunt for insects and bad smells.
Basil was already considered by the Romans to be a magical and sacred plant to Venus, like many other fragrant herbs, to be harvested following precise rituals. Even if there was someone who attributed evil powers to him, whoever had to cut it wore white clothes and purified his right hand with an oak branch wet with water from three different sources. Some authors claimed that it should not be cut with iron tools because the metal would cancel out all its qualities.
The Greeks and Romans also attributed to basil a diabolical symbolism of bad luck and hatred. Pliny the Elder attributed to the plant the ability to generate states of numbness and madness, and according to Chrysippus it could be harmful to the stomach and liver.
Still Pliny was convinced that the seeds of the basil, and not the leaves, were powerful aphrodisiacs, properties attributed to him also by contemporary peasants who administered it to donkeys and horses during the mating period.
Always the ancient Romans associated it with the mythological figure of the basilisk, a snake-shaped creature capable of killing with a gaze: basil would have served as an antidote to its poison. An African legend also claims that basil protects against scorpions.
In the Middle Ages, the plant was used to heal wounds, such as those of arquebus, and was an ingredient of vulnerable water, once used for external applications. Some naturalists, such as Nicholas Culpeper, believed it to be poisonous. A medieval legend mentions it as capable of attracting scorpions, if the leaves were placed under a vase. In the miniatures of some manuscripts, basil is the symbol of hatred and Satan. Jewish folklore suggests instead that it gives strength during fasting.
However, this plant was already widespread in sixteenth-century Italy when Mattioli wrote: “few are those houses, and especially in the cities, that do not have basil in the summer, on the windows, on the loggias and in the gardens”.
Basil is linked to various legends. One refers to Empress Elena, mother of Constantine (4th century AD), who found the plant on the site of Christ’s crucifixion, would then spread it throughout the empire.
Another trace is mentioned by Boccaccio in the Decameron, when in the fifth story, day IV, he recalls the story of Lisabetta da Messina who kept the head of the lover, beheaded by his brothers, in a pot of basil watered with his tears. In the Middle Ages, this plant was also used to hunt devils from the invaded, and it was believed that it worked miracles in the event of human pestilence and physical weakness.
The use of the aroma of basil in the kitchen seems, as mentioned, to become established in the Renaissance, when Cosimo I de ‘Medici also included it among the fragrances of the “Giardino dei Semplici” (1545).
Nowadays basil is used extensively in the kitchen and one of its most famous preparations is the characteristic Genoese pesto, seasoning of pastas, canapés and focaccias.
Basil, as a fresh aromatic herb, garnishes recipes ranging from salads to meats. It is preferably used raw because it does not tolerate long cooking that attenuates its aroma, therefore in hot dishes it is recommended to add it just before serving.
Basil is an annual herbaceous plant up to 60 cm high, which has opposite, oval, lanceolate, sometimes bullous leaves, of 2-5 centimeters in length, but also with different sizes according to different small or giant leaf varieties. The color of the leaves varies from pale green to intense green, or it is purple or purple in some varieties. The stems are erect, branched, have a square section and have a tendency to become woody and leafy.
The small bilabiate flowers, white or pink, have the corolla of 5 irregular petals. The stamens are 4 and yellow. The flowers are grouped in inflorescences at the axil of the leaves.
The seeds are fine, oblong and black.
The real spice is obtained, especially in the fresh state, from the leaves but also from the young inflorescences.
Active principles –
Basil is an aromatic plant in which the different varieties have a variable number of essential oils that give the plant its typical scent in different shades.
Basil contains acid saponin, essential oil, tannin, flavonoids.
The characteristic aroma of the species common in Italy is derived from eugenol, a chemical substance present in large quantities also in cloves. Some varieties share, to a lesser extent, the substances that give the typical lemon, mint, licorice or camphor scent. In addition, 100 grams of basil contain 39 calories.
In the essential oils, according to the variety and the growing season, 29 different constituents have been found and analyzed, including:
– linalool, between 56.7–60.6%;
– epi-α-cadinol (8.6-11.4%);
– α-bergamotene (7.4–9.2%);
– γ-cadinene (3.3–5.4%);
– germacrene D (1.1–3.3%);
– camphor (1.1–3.1%).
In addition to eugenol, basil contains methylugenol and estragol (23–88% in essential oils), substances that have proven to be carcinogenic in rats and mice. Although the effects on humans have not been studied, experiments indicate that much more than what you normally come in contact with is needed for it to pose a risk to cancer. In addition, the combination with other foods reduces or cancels its toxic effect. Estragol and methylugenol, a phenylalanine-based derivative, are present in the IARC classification of carcinogens.
Properties and Uses –
Basil is a highly aromatic plant used in Italian and Asian kitchens which is also traditionally used in some popular medicines.
The adult basil leaves have a more marked (almost bitter) taste than the more tender and young ones.
In general, basil is one of the most loved and used aromatic plants in Mediterranean cuisine and we also find it in some countries of Asia where it is used to flavor soups. We see it used in Genoese pesto, but it is used in salads, with tomatoes, zucchini, garlic, seafood, fish, chicken, rabbit, rice salads, pasta and tomato-based sauces. Very suitable for the preparation of sauces, aromatic oils and flavored vinegars, it is also used in the preparation of excellent liqueurs and the infusion obtained with its leaves is an excellent drink to be consumed strictly cold.
Basil is a plant rich in properties, in addition to aromatic ones, it is anti-inflammatory and a precious ally for the beauty of skin and hair.
It also has beneficial effects on the digestive system and stimulates appetite. The essential oil, distilled from fresh leaves, thanks to the presence of eugenol, has a calming effect on the gastric mucous membranes, and in this way promotes digestion. It has a relaxing effect on the nervous system and can be useful for those suffering from insomnia or migraines.
Its essential oil is used for the preparation of perfumes and liqueurs; from the distillation of the fresh plant an essence containing eucalyptol and eugenol is obtained.
As a medicinal plant, the leaves and the flowering tops are used to prepare infusions with a sedative, antispasmodic effect on the digestive tract, stomachic and diuretic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory. Basil is also used against indigestion and as a dewormer. As mouthwash it is indicated against inflammation of the oral cavity. The oil is used to massage the painful or rheumatism affected parts of the body.
Because of these benefits, its use has spread from Africa to traditional medicine in Brazil. Ayurveda medicine also assigns various properties to the Ocimum tenuiflorum, or sacred basil.
As for other uses, basil is undoubtedly one of the most used plants to decorate balconies and window sills. The basil flowers are very fragrant, therefore, after drying in the shade, they can be added in the poutpourri (i.e. those mixtures of dry essences that are used to perfume the rooms).
Its smell, much loved by humans, is unbearable for flies, mosquitoes and midges.
A 1989 study on basil essential oil shows that the plant has fungicidal and insect repellent properties. A similar study from 2009 confirms that the extracts from the plant are very toxic to mosquitoes.
As for contraindications, even for basil, as for other aromatic herbs, it is not necessary to abuse during pregnancy.
The basil plant uses both flowers and leaves. Fresh, it is used throughout the growing season, removing the necessary quantity of leaves if necessary. The flowers are collected in June-July. To improve the vegetation it is appropriate to the appearance of the flowers, to trim it regularly.
For its use it is always good to choose the bright green leaves that are well attached to the branch; instead, flowering basil must be discarded because its flavor is less aromatic, and withered or stained leaves should be discarded.
The fresh basil can be kept 3-4 days with the stems immersed in a glass of fresh water, or in the refrigerator if placed inside a perforated paper bag. Basil leaves can be stored for six months after drying in a shady place, and subsequently placed in glass jars, even if they lose much of their aroma. Or after cleaning them with a rag (better avoid wetting them, as humidity can cause the appearance of mold), they can be kept in jars in oil, even if the most practical and recommended system is freezing, which allows to remain unaltered for a few months. Fresh employee, must be added at the last moment.
Basil, however, should be used fresh and added to dishes at the last moment. Cooking quickly attenuates the flavor until neutralizing it, leaving little of its scent. When dried, it completely loses its flavor leaving a faint scent of hay. It can be crushed in a mortar to break the cells that contain essential oil, releasing its aroma.
Basil can be combined with some flavors, such as parsley while it is difficult to match with others such as thyme and rosemary.
Together with cheese, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil, it is the basic ingredient of Genoese pesto, the typical sauce of Ligurian cuisine.
It is used for salads, with ripe tomatoes, courgettes, garlic, seafood, fish (mullet), scrambled eggs, chicken, rabbit, duck, rice salads, soups, pasta and for tomato sauces.
In Asian cuisine, especially in Taiwan, it is frequently used in soups. Whole leaves accompany fried chicken or are used to flavor milk and creams.
Warning: The information shown is not medical advice and may not be accurate. The contents are for illustrative purposes only and do not replace medical advice.