Tulsi, also known as Holy basil or Tulasi (Ocimum tenuiflorum, Ocimum sanctum), grows abundantly in temperate regions of India through the Southeast Asian tropics. Tulsi is India’s most sacred and powerful plant both medicinally and spiritually. Its species name, “sanctum”, refers to this sacredness. In Sanskrit, tulsi means “beyond compare.” Indeed, the leaves smell and taste of a unique blend of cinnamon, clove, licorice, peppermint, and lemon. Holy basil is rich in history and folklore, reverently called, the elixir of life and The Queen of Herbs.
Tulsi and the Mint family
Tulsi is not the same as common culinary basil (Ocimum basilicum). They are different species, although they do have some overlapping properties and uses. Tulsi and Basil are both in the Mint family (Lamiaceae or Labiatae ). All mints have:
- Square stems, which can be easily discovered by rolling the stem between the fingers to feel the four sides meeting at right angles;
- Opposite leaves—each pair of leaves emerging from the same level, on opposite sides of the stem ( unique to tulsi is a hairy stem)
- “Lipped” flowers—blossoms shaped like open mouths, the upper and lower lips of varying sizes, depending on the species.
Most, but not all, mints are aromatic, with volatile oils that give the plant a strong aroma and taste (basil, thyme, rosemary, lavender etc). The fragrant volatile oils found in Mints are antibacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial, antiseptic. Volatile oils are easily transported from fresh plants to hot water, when steeped briefly as a tea, but not brewed hours (sun tea or herbal infusion), because they become horribly bitter.
The Many Types of Tulsi
There are at least three different types of Tulsi/ holy basil, and while they can be used somewhat interchangeably, they also have their slight differences in appearance and taste.
Tulsi Rama (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
Tulsi Rama is the most common type grown in India and easiest Tulsi to find in seed to grow. It likes to grow in full sun with moderate water and fertile well-draining soils. Rama is known for its cooling and mellow flavor. The plant has green leaves, white-to-purplish blossoms, and a green or purplish stem.
Tulsi Krishna (Ocimum tenuiflorum )
Tulsi Krishna tastes peppery and has dark green to purple leaves, purple stems, and blossoms.
Vana (Ocimum gratissimum)
Vana, aka. “forest type”tulsi, grows wild on roadsides and in waste places. It has large green leaves and stem, with white blossoms and the plant can easily attain 5 feet tall. Vana tulsi can overwinter indoors in a container with window sunlight. It can be transplanted in the garden when spring warmth returns.
How to Prepare Tulsi
If you want to make a tincture or elixir of Tulsi, you will want to allow it to flower and gather the aerial tops—flowering racemes and leaves. Also, to reseed for next year, leave some on. As we do with other culinary herbs, if you want to encourage growth and keep aromatics, gently “deadhead” or pinch off the blooms.
Tulsi is used multiple ways as a tea, infused honey, syrup, elixir, tincture, vinegar, in cosmetic lotions, soaks, toothpaste, and in food and drink recipes.
Tulsi nourishes and tones as an adaptogen. Herbal adaptogens help the body adapt to physical and emotional stress. Herbalist David Winston describes Tulsi as a “rasayana” herb, one that enhances body resiliency and promotes longevity. Holy basil promotes energy, endurance, and helps to boost immunity.
As an antimicrobial herb, it can be used topically or internally to treat bacterial, viral and fungal infections. Tulsi can assist with upper respiratory viruses like the cold or flu. As an expectorant, it eases lung congestion, inflammation, bronchitis, and asthma.
In these stress-filled hustle and bustle times, holy basil can help ground you, slow the pace down a notch, and quiet the mental chatter ‘monkey brain’ in your head, so you can focus and collect yourself.
In addition, Herbalist David Winston shared that he finds tulsi helpful as a cerebral stimulant to aid people with poor memory or cloudy thinking, or ‘brain fog’ experienced by those in menopause or who have fibromyalgia. Tulsi may be beneficial for individuals with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and to speed up recovery from head trauma.
Tulsi has many beneficial actions on the heart, including promoting good circulation, lowering stress-related high blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. (note contraindications below).
Like other mints, holy basil can support digestion and ease bloating gas, and nausea. Additionally, Tulsi has the pain-relieving aspect of mints. Many herbs, including Tulsi, are Cox 2 inhibitors decreasing pain and inflammation in sore, stiff and swollen joints, muscles, etc.. Tulsi is high in eugenol, a constituent that is helpful to decrease pain.