The health benefits of basil

Basil is one of the world’s most loved herbs and is used in traditional dishes around the world. It was introduced to Europe from India many centuries ago and has never lost its popularity.

Today sweet basil is the most popular of all the varieties but it is worth growing many others, such as green and purple ruffles and lemon basil for the taste alone. They are all annuals and easy to grow. In the last few years two new basils have emerged in great style and have been on sale in nurseries countrywide: ‘high hopes’ basil and ‘sacred‘ basil.


This is a perennial sweet basil that has cross pollinated with a very fragrant perennial basil in the Herbal Centre gardens, producing a tall, sturdy and prolific basil that offers a year-around abundance of delicious leaves. It has all the medicinal and culinary benefits of the other basils.

It loves deeply dug, richly composted soil in full sun and needs to be spaced at least 1.5 m apart. It will grow to 1.5 m in height with a mass of plumed white flowers that bees and butterflies love. It thrives with pruning and although fairy frost-tender, it can survive a mild winter with enough tasty leaves for lots of delicious pasta and pizzas! Propagation is by cuttings at any time of the year; kept moist and shaded until established.

I named it ‘high hopes’ in astonishment at its size, and the nursery industry has accepted that name.


Sacred basil, or holy basil, commonly known as ‘tulsi’ (Ocimum tenuifolium) is considered in its native India to be the ‘elixir of life’ and is one of the most unique plants on earth. It is recorded in the ancient Ayurvedic medical texts of India and verified by great physicians and pharmacologists of the past and present.

Sacred basil thrives in deeply dug, richly composted, moist soil in full sun, and often in light shade, with a twice-weekly watering. It grows over a metre in height and width, and its abundant seeds in attractive inflorescences scatter easily, re-seeding in all sorts of places. Propagation is by cuttings or seeds. Keep the cuttings moist and shaded until they root, then plant out in compost-filled bags, gradually hardening them off until they are strong and vigorous. Plant out spaced 1.5 m apart.

It is a Hindu tradition to plant sacred basil around shrines, homes and in courtyards. It keeps the atmosphere pure, supplies oxygen, repels flies and mosquitoes and is thought to bring peace, prosperity, health, longevity and lasting beauty. A sacred basil plant brought into the home or office for three days, then exchanged for a fresh plant and placed outside in the sun again for at least three to four days, will clean the atmosphere and help to absorb radiation from computers and electrical equipment. Keep it watered and fed with compost while indoors, and spray the plant with a fine mist of water once it emerges from the house to clear the leaves.

Of all the herbs, Basil’s king; For all the healing it can bring. For taste and fragrance praises sing, Basil’s good for everything!


To make sacred basil tea, pour a cup of boiling water over ¼ cup fresh sacred basil leaves and sprigs. Leave the tea to stand for five minutes, then strain and sip slowly. A cup taken 2-4 times a day, under your doctor’s guidance, can be taken for fevers, coughs, colds, colic, digestive disturbances, heartburn and tension anxiety. It is an excellent expectorant, eases urinary tract ailments, diarrhoea, dysentery, impotence and headaches; it also expels internal parasites, flushes out toxins, acts as an excellent diuretic, eases postpartum distress, encourages milk production in nursing mothers, and treats and prevents malaria (it is used extensively for this in India). Chewing fresh leaves daily is part of the treatment.

Sacred basil stimulates the activity of the brain, relieves congestion of the heart, and restores excellent circulation and lustre to the skin, hair and nails. It strengthens and repairs the liver and reduces inflammation of the joints. It is considered one of the prime remedies for ‘incurable’ diseases, acting with speed in acute conditions and with reliable efficacy in chronic conditions. Poultices of crushed leaves in hot water placed over painful areas ease the pain, help to disinfect wounds and speed up healing. In Brazil, 5 000-year-old records show that a daily cup of this tea eases and clears disorders of the rectum, urinary system, sexual organs and haemorrhoids. Sacred basil has also been used since ancient times to treat tuberculosis.


All of the basils have deep tap roots and therefore do not like to be moved. So select the site with care and when transplanting the little seedlings, do so in the cool of the late afternoon and keep the soil, moist and shaded around them until they strengthen.


Annual basil is best grown from seed. Perennial varieties are now increasingly available through nurseries and these can be propagated from cuttings. Sacred or holy basil is an ancient perennial. Sweet basil is annual; sow seeds in August for late September planting and then again in November for a batch to last through autumn. Sow the seeds in trays and transplant the seedlings 50 cm apart when they are big enough to handle. Keep them shaded for a day or two with twigs to protect them.


Basil is best used fresh (dried and frozen basil loses its flavour). Harvest the leaves as soon as the plant reaches 15 cm in height.


Plant with tomatoes, summer savoury, fruit trees, brinjals, calabashes, carrots, green peppers, loofahs, pumpkins, strawberries, radishes, roses and summer annuals.


No herb tastes quite as delicious with pizza and pasta as basil, while in the case of many dishes – from fish and summer soups to chicken, sausages, tomatoes, and hard-boiled eggs – the flavour of basil makes the dish!

Pesto is probably the best-known basil recipe and in the USA entire festivals are devoted to this popular sauce. An old Florentine recipe for pesto inspired me to grow a variety of basils and to experiment with the remarkable complexity of tastes each one offers. For instance, the small-leafed almost lemony tender Greek basil, together with a good mild olive oil and paprika, gives fish fillets an astonishingly rich taste, while the dark red leaves of ‘purple ruffles’ basil can be used to flavour clear grape vinegars and together with mustard seeds and crushed coriander it becomes an incredible marinade – ruby red and tantalising.


  • 3 cups of fresh basil (purple ruffles leaves and sprigs)
  • 1 bottle clear grape vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp lightly crushed mustard seeds
  • 2 Tbsp coriander seeds


Add the basil leaves and sprigs to a glass bottle filled with clear grape vinegar. Stand in a warm place out of direct sunlight. Shake the bottle every now and then. After 4-5 days strain out the basil leaves and discard, and add more fresh basil to the now beautifully coloured vinegar. Repeat as many times as necessary to achieve a rich flavour and colour. Finally, add the mustard and coriander seeds, label and store in a dark cupboard. Give the bottle a daily shake, and taste after 10 days – it should be spicy and fresh.

Add a dash to olive oil marinades, or mix with 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil, stir briskly and serve over a luscious salad with butter lettuce and sprouts and thinly sliced cucumber. It will be a new taste.


Spaghetti with basil pesto and Parmesan cheese differs from region to region in Italy, depending on where the fresh basil was grown and what olive oil was used. The recipe comes from Florence and is still a classic to this day.

  • 2-4 cloves garlic
  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves, kept in iced water until the last moment before chopping
  • 3 Tbsp pine nuts
  • 3 Tbsp good extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3-6 Tbsp freshly grated Parmesan
  • Sea salt and black pepper to taste
  • 500 g spaghetti – freshly made is best!
  • Juice of one fresh lemon


Combine the garlic with the fresh basil leaves and pine nuts in a food processor, or crush them together in a mortar and pestle, adding the olive oil little by little – it takes a few minutes to emulsify. Once combined into a smooth paste, gradually add the finely grated cheese, mixing well. Taste for seasoning.

Cook the spaghetti until just tender. Drain well in a large colander and squeeze the lemon juice over the pasta. Mix in the pesto with light movements using two spoons so as not to break the spaghetti, and serve hot.



Used as a medicine since ancient times, basil’s remarkable detoxifying properties are well documented. Basil tea is an excellent de-stressor and detoxifier and is also helpful for migraines, coughs, peptic ulcers, tonsillitis, mouth infections, hypertension, palpitations, indigestion and delayed menstruation. Use ¼ cup fresh leaves to a cup of boiling water. Let the tea stand for five minutes, strain and sip slowly. It can also be cooled and used as a lotion.

In case of infected bites and stings, crush a basil leaf and apply to the area. Basil cream soothes aches and pains and stiffness, and is excellent for athletes and hikers with cramp or sore backs and feet.

Basil bath vinegar is effective for sunburn and scalp infections, and helps with psoriasis and eczema too. Use as a splash or add to the bath or hair-rinsing water after shampooing or as a compress on cotton wool.


This is an effective cream for insect bites, rashes and itchy spots. Save and dry calendula and Elder flowers to make the cream (the flowers can be saved throughout the year as they are seasonal).

  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves
  • ½ cup calendula petals
  • ½ cup elderflowers
  • 1 cup good aqueous cream


Mix ingredients together in a double boiler and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat and allow to stand and settle for 10 minutes. Strain and pour into a sterilised screw-top jar and label. Use lavishly and frequently.


  • 2-3 cups fresh basil leaves
  • 1 bottle clear grape vinegar


Steep the basil in the vinegar for 10 days. Keep the bottle in a warm place and shake it daily. Repeat the process, discarding the old leaves and replacing with fresh ones. Finally, strain and add a fresh sprig to the bottle, and label.


Perfect for oily problem skins, basil has been used for centuries as a lotion and poultice, cleanser and toner. As a face steamer, basil is an astringent deep cleanser for oily skin.


A deep cleansing facial steam is a wonderful way to get the skin really clean and refine the pores. Afterwards, strain the steamer and add it to the bath for a whole-body treat!


Simmer two cups of fresh leaves and sprigs of the herb of your choice (see options below) in two litres of water for 15-20 minutes. Remove from the stove, make a towel-tent over your head, and steam your face gently over the fragrant brew.


Basil makes a superb spray against aphids, scale, fungus and white fly. Basil leaves rubbed onto windowsills and counter tops in the kitchen keeps flies away and freshen the air; they can also be rubbed over horses to deter flies.


Use this spray to combat aphids, scale, mealie bug, fungus, mildew, white fly and ants. The following herbs (see options below) can be used alone or in combination with rue, southernwood or tansy to increase the potency of the spray.


Use ½ bucket roughly chopped fresh leaves, flowers and stalks and ½ bucket fresh khakibos or marigold leaves. Pour a bucketful of boiling water over this and leave to draw overnight. The next morning strain and add ½ cup washing powder (I use Sunlight soap washing powder). You can also add two tablespoons of Jeyes Fluid and/or three roughly chopped whole garlic bulbs to the mixture.

Mix well and splash or spray onto plants, water around plants or pour down ant holes once a week to clear the infestation. Repeat after rain. If you use the spray over vegetables and fruit, rinse them well before eating.


Fennel, Lemon verbena, Mint, Tea tree, Winter Savoury

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The health benefits of basil

Margaret Roberts
About The Author
- The Late Margaret Roberts was a herbal pioneer in South Africa and lectures and consults on herbs, medicinal foods and environmentally safe natural insecticides at tertiary institutions countrywide and at her Herbal Centre at De Wildt. She has shared her knowledge through over 40 books and ongoing radio and television series. Margaret received a Laureate Award from Pretoria University in recognition of her outstanding contribution to this field. Remebering her with fondness. RIP