ISSUE 13  |  India Song

Field Guide: Tulsi Basil

March 31, 2014 6:30 PM

BY Laura Boyle

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Tulsi Basil, Ocimum Tenuiflorum: “Holy Basil”

Cultivation of this wild-growing herb began in India. According to Indian legend and religious teaching, tulsi basil was bestowed on humanity as an incarnation of the Hindu goddess Tulsi. Thousands of years later, many cultures use this exalted plant in medicine, religious practices, and cuisine. In India, people grow tulsi basil in their family homes and near temple doors to invoke focused devotion and protection.


Above: Photographs by (Top L) Resh; (Top Center) Liane Tyrrel; (Top R) Raja Qaiser; (Bottom L) Aditya Singhvi; (Bottom Center) Thangaraj Kumaravel, and (Bottom R) Hemam Bishwajeet.

There are three main varieties of tulsi basil: vana, rama, and krishna. Each has slightly different coloring and concentrations of beneficial nutrients, so choose according to your climate and expected use.

Above: Photograph by Hemam Bishwajeet.

All manner of tiny flying creatures adore the small, purple flowers of the tulsi plant. Its sweet aroma (reminiscent of anise) lingers in the yard or windowsill. 

Cheat Sheet:

  • This perennial herb will grow in zones 6-10.
  • Add elegance to borders and backgrounds with tulsi basil’s green and purple foliage.
  • Plant a few successions each summer to keep yourself in tulsi basil all season. 

Keep It Alive:

  • Plant it in full sun.
  • Give it an inch or so of water every week.
  • Grow it indoors if you live in a cool climate.

Above: Photograph by Liane Tyrrel.

In Aruvedyic medicine, the herb is considered cooling, balancing, and detoxifying. It is used to improve digestion and respiration and also to provide soothing relief for coughs, colds, and flus. Modern scientifc studies support many of the healing properties descibed in ancient texts. Feeling okay physically but in need of a mental lift? Treat yourself to the cool, sweet flavor of tulsi tea.

Above: Photograph by Aditya Singhvi.

Herbalists label tulsi an “adaptogen,” which means that it adapts to support your whole system and can be used as a mild anti-depressant or for stress relief. Tulsi also contains high levels of eugenols, antioxidants, and essential oils.

Above: Photograph by Resh.

Convinced? Try growing your own. Tulsi grows best in warm climates, but can be grown indoors in containers, as long as you choose a protected, sunny spot. Grow from seed or cuttings in well-amended soil, taking note that the woody shrub will spread by seed if allowed to blossom. The tiny seeds will take longer to germinate than garden-variety basil, so be patient. The best flavor comes before flowering, and you can pinch off the blossoms to promote a bushy habit in your plant. 

Read More About Basil:

Need more help growing your own basil? Meredith, our Novice Gardener, finally figured out How to Grow Enough Basil to Make Pesto

Planning your spring garden? For plant information, browse our Field Guide archives.