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Belligerent Basil

By Audrey Stallsmith


He once called her his basil plant; and when she asked for an explanation, said that basil was a plant which had flourished wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains.
MiddleMarch, George Eliot
In ancient times, what you thought of basil depended on your nationality. To the inhabitants of India, it was a sacred herb known as tulsi or tulasi, planted in pedestal vases near Hindu temples and homes. A leaf laid on a corpse’s chest supposedly paid the fare to paradise, and pulling the plant was deemed an unforgivable offense.

The Egyptians and Persians also hallowed graves with basil. And, in Italy, courting couples exchanged the herb as a symbol of love and faithfulness. A woman placed a pot of basil on her balcony when she wished to receive suitors. In Slavic countries members of the Eastern Orthodox church blessed and ate the plant on St. Basil’s day (January 2).

The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, considered the herb a sign of misfortune. They portrayed Poverty as a forlorn female with a basil plant, and believed the seed would only sprout if verbally abused when planted. The French expression semer le basilic (“to sow basil”) means, in fact, to rant or slander. So basil came to stand for hatred in the Language of Flowers.

Culpeper considered it significant that the plant wouldn’t prosper near rue, the herb of grace. Dioscorides and Galen both believed basil caused insanity and/or worms. Then there was the rumor about a certain French gentleman who used the herb as snuff and died, quite mad, of scorpions on the brain!

The plant’s common name may even derive from a poisonous mythological creature, the basilisk—which was supposed to be hatched by a serpent from a cock’s egg! Others contend, however, that basil refers to the Greek basileous (“a king”). (The Latin title, ocimum, means “to smell.”) There is also some dispute about whether the herb's name should be pronounced as bah-zul or base-al.

Most superstitions about the plant center on its supposed power to either attract or repel. A leaf in your purse will reportedly draw prosperity to you, and an admirer who accepts basil from your hand will love you forever. But a female will supposedly avoid any dish which has a basil leaf hidden under it!

There’s no need to be repulsed by basil, however, unless you’re a worm or a bug—or, possibly, an evil spirit! (Haitians employ the plant to rebuff the latter.) Rather than creating intestinal parasites, basil oil actually kills them, and the herb is also supposed to repel insects. Like the saint who shares its name, it could be described as “hot-blooded and sometimes imperious, but also generous and sympathetic.”

Basil is reputed to stop vomiting and nausea; calm the nerves, lower blood pressure, stimulate the immune system, and ease cramps. It’s also supposed to help cure bad breath, headaches, oral yeast infections, warts, colds, flu, constipation, and kidney problems. On the down side, the herb does contain a chemical called estragole that has produced tumors in lab mice.

But we all know that those lab animals are usually fed ridiculous amounts of whatever they’re testing. The Food and Drug Administration still considers the herb safe. And, once you’ve sampled basil in tomato dishes, salads, or soups, I can almost guarantee you’ll be more inclined to bless than curse it!

Plant plate and background is from Phytanthoza Iconographia, Sive, Conspectus Aliquot Millium, by Joanne Guilielmo Weinmanno, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library.