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The Story of Ocimum basilicum: Malevolent Beast or Ally and Protector?

A plants past draws us in and intrigues us.  We study its uses, think about it and employ it.  The more we read, the more we are moved in a way we do not foresee.  For along with a plants clinical and medicinal qualities that we feel physically, its tale is also a part of its medicine.  But why are myth and story so integral to the healing process?  What does the story engage in us?

When we learn and think about the clinical application of plants, we engage our head.  However, upon hearing their story, we connect emotionally, and engage our own process metaphorically. We incite our heart.  The story gives hope, and supports healing on an unconscious level.  In light of the story, we wander our past for perspective,  consider our present differently, and stir our personal evolution.

I have mentioned engaging the heart and the mind, and the hands are no less important.  Our hands, in the “doing”, connect the two.  Making tinctures, teas, preparing baths, cooking and gardening are all a part of this.

By putting together the doing, thinking and feeling, we move energy.  We place our spirit, soul, physical and emotional bodies in tandem with nature and these same parts of the plants.  This makes us capable of engaging our healing process consciously, unconsciously and physiologically. And that brings us to basil.

Ocimum basilicum (Sweet Basil)

Basil’s story is interesting, in that it imparts an understanding of duality within us, and the ability to thrive even in the wake of unsubstantiated negative distortion.


According to Nicolas Culpeper, Ocimum basilicum is derived from the Greek, basilicon.  It’s name has two inspirations.

  1. The basilisk-an enormous snake of a creature with a venomous bite and the ability to kill with a look.  We were introduced to this massive mythical beast in the second Harry Potter book.
  2. Derived from the Greek word for king (basileus), because “the scent was fit for a king”.  Maude Grieve also notes that it may have been named after the word king from use in ungents made for royalty.  I might add, that is highly possible.


Sweet basil’s history is sorted, at best, for many ancient and medieval civilizations either feared the plant or held it in high regard.  So just as basil has two personalities deemed it by name, it does also by use.

In fact, revisiting Culpepper’s writings on sweet basil made me laugh.  I was reminded how fearful he is of addressing the plant at all. After he relays a few uses and states that-through second hand knowledge-a scorpion bred in someone’s brain after smelling basil, Culpepper writes, “I dare write no more of it.”

He does discuss some important historical facts about sweet basil before departing from the topic.  The Ancient Greeks thought basil “unfit to be taken inwardly”, while the Arabian physicians and Pliny thought it a fine medicine.

Culpepper, himself, followed the sentiments of his time saying, “Every like draws his like”, recommending sweet basil as a fresh leaf poultice to draw the poisonous venom from stings and bites of serpents, wasps and hornets.  He also believed it to inspire labor and help expel the afterbirth.

Interestingly, while sweet basil had a complex place in herbal history, it’s close, Ocimum sanctum (holy basil, aka tulsi), found it’s place on alters and at the front doors of everyone in Hindu culture.  It is, and always has been, seen as a great proctor from harmful spirits and malice, and finds use as a panacea.

Medicinal qualities:

Sweet basil is sweet, aromatic, warming and slightly pungent.  It, too, has many medicinal uses.

If you find the past articles I have written on the healing benefits of taste, you will find more on pungent aromatic plants.  But in short, they are quite flexible in use, as their warmth stimulates the blood, skin, circulatory system, and immune system.  Their vaporous quality also allows these plants to penetrate stuck and cold tissue, granting passage to heal by lifting the spirit of cold tissue from within.

Organ system affinity: stomach, adrenal cortex, lungs, skin, immune system, nervous system, circulatory system, women’s reproductive system

Best way to use the plant: leaves and flowers tinctured fresh, or cut and dried when flowering and used for tea

(NOTE:  This plant is high in volatile oils.  It must be dried well, stored in an airtight container, and used by 9-10 months old.)

Upper respiratory infections (colds and flu)

  • anti-viral
  • mild anti-bacterial
  • diaphoretic (warms the blood and opens the pores for heat to move out and fever to break;  works best for fevers below 101)
  • expectorant (stimulates mucous to be expelled from the lungs and the intestines)


  • carminative (helps dispel gas and bloating)
  • dispels build up of mucous in the colon

Nervous system tension with cold circulation

  • circulatory stimulant to the mind- can decreasing mental cloudiness
  • nervine tonic when cold and tense
  • insomnia when cold and tense

Balancing adrenal cortex

  • Will balance the release of cortisol, re-setting sleep cycles and stabilizing mood during the day

Female reproductive system

  • Galactagogue (stimulates the production of milk)
  • Emmenagogue
  • Uterine stimulant for expelling afterbirth


  • antioxidant (assists cell repair when damaged)
  • anti-inflammatory for headache and rheumatic pains

Sweet basil, you see, isn’t simply for cooking, is it?  And if it’s scorpions you fear, well, I have many theories about that.  For one, when we use a plant for therapy, or anything, for that matter, we begin to move energy, and feel different from what we are accustomed to.  This change can be scary for some, and we conjure negative images in our mind which lead us to believe that what we have done is wrong.  We give voice to those things, and put our emotional fears into words and images. In this case, the picture was a scorpion.

There is also the possibility that basil was sending a message to the inhaler about what it might be used for.  Or that the person needed to be more scorpion like to deal with a problem or balance part of their personality.  Perhaps sweet basil was helping the scorpion conjurer to take on his shadow side for deeper healing.  And, lastly, perhaps it was just a simple joke the plant was playing on a very serious individual.

No matter, the point being, there are many ways to interpret a plants work, never one or two.  While we should never overlook a poor reaction that adversely affects vital signs, makes someone violently ill, or interacts poorly with  medication or another plant, it is essential in all cases that we address our fears.  When things arise, they are an important place to look.

For more information on Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum), making tinctures, or on pungent tasting plants, please refer to the following articles.





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