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Basil: The Herb with the Split Personality
by Susan Wittig Albert
May 6, 2001

When you think basil (often called sweet basil), you probably think pesto--that fragrant, zesty sauce for pasta that we’ve learned how to make from the Italians. But over the centuries, and across many cultures, basil seems to have developed a split personality and certainly, a dual reputation. There’s the "bright" side of this fascinating herb, and there’s the "dark." 
In folklore, basil’s darker, more mysterious aspects derive from its association with death. The plant originally came from India, where the Hindus cherish it as a tribute to the dead, placing a leaf of basil on the loved one’s corpse as a "passport to Paradise." The basil that is grown in India is called holy basil or tulsi, and is still grown around the holy city of Pandharpur. Basil was also planted in Persian burial grounds--and then there is Boccacio’s moving story of Lisabetta burying the head of her dead lover in a pot of basil and watering it daily with her tears. Perhaps because of its connection with death and widowhood, the plant also became associated with poverty, especially the poverty of old women. 
The Greeks and Romans had some even more mysterious ideas about basil: they thought that the only way the seeds would germinate was to sow them with curses and ugly words. (Even today, in France, the phrase semer le basilic, "to sow basil", means "to rant and rave.") The Romans also thought that the bruised leaves of the plant bred scorpions (perhaps because scorpions liked to hide under the pots). That idea hung around at least until the 1700s, when a French botanist wrote quite seriously about a "certain Gentleman of Sienna" who enjoyed the scent of basil and sniffed it so often that he went mad; when he died and was autopsied, "there was found a Nest of Scorpions in his Brain." 
There aren’t many sureties in this uncertain world, but I think it’s safe to say that smelling basil will not breed scorpions in your brain. In fact, basil’s brighter reputation is based on its wonderful fragrance, as well as its taste. Basil oil is often used in perfume, and in some cultures, the plant is thought of as a love token. Perhaps you can understand why when you go into the garden and gather a basket of basil for pesto. The aroma is heavenly, and it’s hard to understand why anyone would imagine that the seeds had to be sown with a curse! 
To grow basil in your garden, it’s a good idea to start the seeds indoors and set the transplants out about the same time as you would tomatoes, when the air and soil are quite warm. Pinch off the lowest pair of leaves and set it deep enough to cover that node. New rootlets will sprout from the pinched-off node. Mulch deeply, water regularly, and cut frequently to encourage denser growth and discourage the plant from blooming . (Blooms change basil’s chemistry and make it taste somewhat bitter.) 
The easiest way to preserve basil (if there’s any left after you’ve made all the pesto you can eat) is to chop the leaves and place a couple of spoonfuls in each compartment of an ice cube tray. Cover with olive oil or water and freeze, then transfer to plastic bags for long-term storage. 

© 2000 Susan Wittig Albert. All rights reserved. 

Susan Wittig Albert is the author of the China Bayles Herbal Mysteries. The series features China Bayles, a former attorney who owns an herb shop. Each of the mysteries has an herbal theme and an herb-related title. The latest is Lavender Lies. You can find out more about Susan's books and read one of her free web mysteries at


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