Tulsi (Holy Basil)
Tulsi (Holy Basil)
Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum), also known as holy basil, is closely related to sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), as can easily be noted in its botanical arrangement, scent, and overall qualities/properties. However, this divine entity shines through with a unique light all to their own.
Tulsi: A Love Story Tulsi captivated my heart in my first year of medicinal plant cultivation, at Pachamama Organic Farm in Colorado. As an intern, I was tasked with designing, implementing, and cultivating a large medicinal garden at the farm, despite very little experience (aside from a small library of books I had acquired to mark the beginning of my plant medicine education). It was a dynamic project, marked by peak moments of overwhelm, surprise abundance, frustration (read: bindweed), and pure magic. And the most magical moment I can recall, is wandering into the medicine garden mid-summer, just before dusk and immediately sensing this deep, buzzing OM that reverberated through my entire body and into my heart. What IS that? I began circling the garden for the source, and quickly found myself at the exceptionally lush tulsi patch that I hadn't previously been paying much mind to, aside from occasional admiring glances. But now...the flowers were towering sky high, lit up by the sunset in psychedelic hues of green, pink, and purple... the scent was overpowering (like a cross of basil, cotton candy, and blackberry)...and the honeybees were feasting upon the nectar in the patch with an excitement and exuberance I had never before witnessed. The steady buzz swelled inside my heart, as I watched the bees gorge themselves...drunkenly swooning from flower to flower, legs burdened with oversized pouches of bright red pollen as they struggled to sip on just..one...more...flower. I lay next to the patch as the sun dropped lower, in a state of pure wonder, hypnotized by the spectacle and awash in deep inner stillness. I'll never forget how the plants seemed to respond to the bees' amorous devotion...it's difficult to articulate, but the experience I observed (and partook in) felt absolutely like mutual and consensual play. That moment marked an important evolution in my relationship with the plants, as I began to acknowledge their own sovereign pursuits and relationships, aside from my human-oriented expectations or feelings of ownership and entitlement as their "caretaker". And so every year, no matter where I am, I keep tulsi nearby. Whether a lush patch in a big garden, or in a pot on the front porch, tulsi is a dear friend. Tending tulsi is an act of love. In order to encourage growth, much like sweet basil, it's important to prune the mature flowering stalks back to a lower set of new leaves. And with each fragrant snip, tulsi will quickly send up two new stalks in its place. This ritual, quite frequent in the hotter months, brings me down from the busyness of summer and becomes a simple act of reconnecting with an Earth angel and with my heart. (Actually, I once had a vision of Tulsi as an earthside, yet inter-dimensional angel...a cosmic traveller of sorts.....more on that another time) Tulsi's Gifts:
Tulsi hails from India, where it has over 3,000 years of recorded medicinal use and maintains a halo of revere. In Ayurveda (India's ancient and holistic healing system), tulsi is regarded as "The Incomparable One" and "The Queen of Herbs". Traditionally, tulsi is used as a daily tonic to maintain balanced energy centers, fortify the body, restore vitality, uplift the spirit, and promote joy and well-being. In this way, tulsi is classified as an adaptogen. Adaptogens can be simply defined as plants, fungi, and other supplements, which greatly assist in the adaptation to stress and the promotion of homeostasis (in body, mind, and spirit).
While the list of tulsi's useful qualities are innumerable (and easily found with a quick internet search), here are two qualities of tulsi's personality that feel most relevant for the moment:
Tulsi as a soothing, uplifting nervine: I most intimately know tulsi as a heart warming, nervine remedy for states of both depression and anxiety. For me, these two states of being (essentially saddness and worry) often come in overlapping waves. Tulsi has this lovely, calm, intelligent presence, that speaks kindly to the heart in a way that lifts the spirit and sparks joy, while simultaneously calming and soothing the nerves. Tulsi is energizing (I call it "brightening") but not overly stimulating....and calming, without being sedative. I often combine tulsi with rose, and (in the evening) skullcap.
Tulsi and the respiratory system: Tulsi, like many adaptogens, is also immunomodulating: physiologically fortifying the immune system and encouraging an overall state of resilience. Additionally the presence of volatile oils (namely eugenol), can help open up the respiratory system and clear the lungs of congestion and infection. In these smoky times, and collective challenges regarding our respiratory systems (from viruses to fires) tulsi is a helpful ally. It is also important to note that tulsi has broad-spectrum anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal qualities and so can be used in both the "prevention" and (alongside other medicines) the "intervention" of infections.
These qualities...the "opening" "clearing" "moving" qualities are mirrored in its affect on the more abstract aspects of our body-mind-spirit experience. In my experience, the "medicinal qualities" are usually inextricable from the plant's spirit as it interplays with our own.
Tulsi Tea: A Ritual I highly recommend getting to know Tulsi in tea form, with fresh or dried herb Depending on the variety of tulsi and preparation, the flavor profile ranges from spicy and citrusy (I often get cinnamon and orange), to floral and berry-like...sometimes all of the above in a swirl of plant magic...each sip different from the next. If harvesting for dried herb, clip the leaf and young flowers before the stalk has gotten too tall/woody or the flowers fully mature. The buds should be just beginning to flower, and the leaves tender and superbly fragrant. Separate the leaves and buds/flowers before drying, as the flower can retain a lot of moisture and, if damp and hiding amongst the leaves, can lead to a moldy/mildewy conditions. Dry in a dehydrator at 98-100 degrees Fahrenheit until dry and slightly crisp (pinch the buds and flowers to make sure they are fully dry). As a general rule, use 1 tbs of dried herb, to 8oz just boiled water...cover and allow to steep for at least 15 minutes. Truth be told, I often double that ratio (2tbs per cup)...it's just a thing, I like strong tea.
For therapeutic use, the cell walls of the dried herb are technically more easily broken down and may yield a higher content of accessible/water soluble medicinal constituents. If treating an illness, perhaps high quality dried leaf should be your jam. However, if you have access to the plant, I think fresh tulsi tea is an entire experience of its own, not to be missed out on. To me, any fresh herb tea from the garden is an ongoing conversation with the plant, which is medicine in and of itself. Meeting the plant in its living form, harvesting with care (and permission), experiencing the fragrance of harvest, tasting, preparing, consuming...it's a whole thing! And for fresh tulsi tea, you can be a lot less picky when harvesting. Use the opportunity to prune your plant, and use mature flowers, all the leaves, young buds etc. The flower to leaf ratio will alter the flavor and specific qualities of the tea, so play around with it.
Here's a few different takes on fresh tulsi tea:
Fresh Tulsi Tea (steeped) Fill a glass quart jar 25%-40% full with leaf and flower, crushing and rubbing them between my hands as I go. You could also finely chop the herb, but there's something quite lovely about that tulsi perfume wafting from your wrists the rest of the day. Fill the jar with just boiled water, cover immediately (don't let those volatile oils escape!) and allow to steep for at least 15 minutes.
Fresh Tulsi Tea (blended) Using the same ratios above, combine the fresh herb and hot water (not quite boiling) in the blender. This is a great moment for the vitamix. Be sure the lid is tightly fitted, and if not using a vitamix, cover the lid with a dish towel and hold in place while blending (for extra safety precaution...I've learned from experience). Blend on high for several seconds, and then pour into a glass quart jar and cover. Allow to steep for at least 10 minutes. Technically, this preparation is something of a cross between a tea and a "succus", (which is the expressed juice of a plant for medicinal use). I love the enhanced green juiciness of this preparation. Over ice on a hot day....yes please.
Strong Fresh Tulsi Brew (for cold mixed drinks) Double or triple the plant to water ratio, using either fresh or dried herb (i.e use the same amount of herb, but fill a smaller jar at least 75%, before topping with hot water) and allow to steep for a few hours, or even overnight. Strain, and use this concentrated tea in all kinds of cold mixed drinks! Here's some ideas: Tulsi Rose Lemonade: 4oz Tulsi strong brew 2oz fresh lemon juice 1oz rose water honey, maple, or stevia to taste top with fresh or sparkling water Tulsi Mojito 4oz Tulsi strong brew 2oz fresh squeezed lime juice crushed fresh tulsi leaf, and optional mint dash of sea salt honey, maple, or stevia to taste top with fresh or sparkling water...or even ginger beer I entertain a trove of other Tulsi formulas and inspirations (as evidenced in our Radiant Earth Ghee and Tulsi Flower Acetum)....let me know if you are curious about any specific preparations or if you have favorites of your own! PS Tulsi Pesto is totally a thing. ***Below is a quick scientific note on Tulsi's adaptogenic qualities...follow up with some research on clinical studies if you like to geek out! The research on Ocimum sanctum is fascinating, though certainly not necessary to be in relationship with the plant.
According to Dr. Marc Cohen, professor of Health Sciences at RMIT University in Victoria, Australia, modern science has begun to confirm the long-revered efficacy of Tulsi as an adaptogen, and offers clinical evidence that tulsi can address physical, chemical, metabolic and psychological stress through a unique combination of pharmacological actions. "Tulsi has been found to protect organs and tissues against chemical stress from industrial pollutants and heavy metals, and physical stress from prolonged physical exertion, ischemia, physical restraint and exposure to cold and excessive noise. Tulsi has also been shown to counter metabolic stress through normalization of blood glucose, blood pressure and lipid levels, and psychological stress through positive effects on memory and cognitive function and through its anxiolytic and anti-depressant properties" (1)