To the ephemeral joys of basil

While much of last week’s weather was muggy to the point of balminess, the forecast has been speckled with days described by the meteorologist as “good for apple-picking.” While that certainly sounds deliciously gorgeous, it also serves as a reminder that the coming crisp nights and rosy-from-the-wind cheeks won’t do your supply of fresh basil much good. This is the time of year when both big- and small-time growers and gardeners start listening to the radio or checking weather websites more and more often, planning and pondering over when the first frost will come.

Few things are as glum as frost-bitten basil in the field. Why, you may ask? Because your lovely, lush, generous plants won’t look like they’ve been bit. They’ll look like they’ve been melted by some post-apocalyptic source that surely was coupled with zombies. The once bosky rows are left in black sags, slimy and reminiscent of very sad and “poor unfortunate souls.”

And so, in the spirit of Henri Frédéric Amiel, I offer a beauty-butchering parody for the love of the herb: “Oh, be swift to pick basil, make haste to make pesto!” Because we’re living on borrowed time, here.

In honor of this wonderful and multifaceted herb, I thought that I would offer some anecdotes for how useful and storied it is, along with a vignette about my favorite basil of them all. Basil’s English name is derived from the Greek basileus, or “king.” While it has certainly become one of the most regal and honored of herbs in cuisines worldwide, its regal moniker referred to the plant’s presence in the royal bathwaters and apothecaries of ancient Greece and England. In other countries basil was used by the lusty and moon-eyed as an aphrodisiac. In Italy this was done by wearing a sprig of leaves in one’s hair, while the Mexican youth would keep it inside of a pocket to aromatically convey their intentions. Romanians went a length further by actually handing the sprig over to their intended, thus creating an official engagement.

Basil, known scientifically as the genus Ocimum (from a Greek verb that straight up means “smell”), belongs to the Lamiaceae, or mint family, making it a cousin to such plants as thyme, spearmint, lavender, and the bane of daytime tv, chia. India is the plant’s ancestral home, and it is in that country’s lowlands and gardens where we find my absolute favorite Ocimum, sacred basil (also known as tulsi, holy basil or O. tunuiflorum).

Sacred basil has been permeating my garden with its heady, mellifluous smell since it first started blooming in the beginning of July. At times I’ve caught wafting whiffs of it while on the path to my parcel before I could even see the gate. It’s Hindi name, tulsi, translates to “the incomparable one,” and I have truly found no other herb to offer so sweet a scent or so satisfying a tea. I find that when I drink it at the end of a day anything negative sinks beyond my feet into the floor and leaves me with a real, humble joy that holds me through the evening. Hindis believe that the herb contains sattva (“energy of purity”), meaning that it is “capable of bringing on goodness, virtue, and joy in humans.” According to, “in the Puranas (a sacred Hindu text), everything associated with the plant is holy, including water given to it and the soil in which it grows as well as all its parts, among them leaves, flowers, seed, and roots.” There truly is something about sacred basil that gives a poignancy to the space that in inhabits. After centuries of use as a folk remedy, it is also being researched as a medicine for many ailments, including brain damage and depression. Sacred basil is pretty uncommon in the States, but if you’d like a teabag or two let me know and I’ll send you one. Satisfaction Guaranteed.

* * *

Whether you have plants of tulsi or sweet basil in the backyard or a friendly supply at your local farmer’s market, farm stand, or Stop ‘n Shop, be swift! Make haste! The flowers of sacred basil can easily be dried for winter use, and pesto can be kept for months in ice cube trays or jars in the freezer. Basil, whether you use it in matters of love or transcendence, is not to be squandered. Use it wisely, my friends!


3 responses

    • I worked on a farm in northwestern Wisconsin and when September came around one of the guys got a crazed look in his eye and would constantly talk about COMFORT FOOD. We need COMFORT FOOD in the winter. COMFORT. And he would not rest until ungodly amounts of pesto were made. I mean, really, a LOT of pesto, spatula-ed into every spare container available. Working so hard to procure comfort for the winter made me feel like I was on the right side of an epic war – it was pretty awesome.

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