Holy Basil – Rama Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum)
Holy Basil, Rama Tulsi, Sacred Basil, Elixir of Life, Queen of Herbs, The Incomparable One, Mother Medicine of Nature, Tulasi or Thulasi, St. Josephwort, Sri Tulasi, Bright Tulsi, Green Leaf Tulsi
About This Plant
Tulsi is a special and revered plant in the same genus as our more familiar culinary Basils. Its history of medicinal use and cultural significance is perhaps unparalleled. This tender tropical perennial, hardy in USDA zones 10-11, is commonly grown as an annual in temperate climates. It will only thrive if nighttime temperatures are in the mid 50 degrees Fahrenheit or above and will not tolerate a frost. In tropical locales, it can grow to be about two feet tall and equally wide and live to be about five years old before losing its vigor. Native to India, it is both cultivated and found growing wild.
As a member of the larger Mint family, Rama Tulsi has the characteristic square stems and opposite leaves as other plants in the family. Its stems are slightly hairy and the leaves are primarily green while the stems are primarily purple or green depending on the season. Rama Tulsi readily flowers and goes to seed. Its many delicate white to reddish-purple flowers are arranged tightly in a long raceme that towers at the height of the plant. It is an aromatic plant with a delicate clove-like scent.
Tulsi, also known as Holy Basil, has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for well over 5,000 years. It is considered one of the main pillars of herbal medicine in ancient Ayurvedic texts and is considered the most sacred of plants in Hinduism. It is an essential part of the ritual worship of Vishnu and Krishna and is believed to be the earthly incarnation of the Divine Mother herself. Tulsi is believed to be a doorway between Heaven and Earth. Its cultural use is significant. Hindu homes across India often have a specific, sacred altar space used for growing Tulsi plants called a Tulsi Vrindavan. The plant is used to purify both the environment and the body. Mala beads, used for prayer and meditation, are often made from the wood of the Tulsi plant. A tea made from its leaves is often given to the dying to help guide their souls from this world to the next. Tulsi is considered an herb that nourishes a person’s growth to perfect health and promotes long life. It is believed to balance the Chakras, bringing out goodness, virtue, and joy in humans.
There are said to be over 100 types of Tulsi plant varieties which is not surprising since tropical Basils hybridize freely. The name and appearance of a particular variety will vary depending on the growing location and conditions. Typically, there are three types of Tulsi that are most commonly found. Rama Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) is the most widely used and commonly found one in commerce. It has green leaves and is considered the most aromatic and medicinal. Krishna Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) is a rarer variety with leaves that are more purple in color. It grows more slowly and while less aromatic than Rama Tulsi, has a more strong, spicier, and pungent flavor that is peppery and clove-like. Vana Tulsi (Ocimum gratissum) is also known as African Basil and is native to both India and East Africa. Its flavor is more lemony and it’s often considered the best tasting of the Tulsis. Its leaves are two-tones with the upper leaves being a light green color and the lower leaves being a darker green.
Rama Tulsi is a tropical native, so its seeds prefer warm places to germinate. A seedling heat mat can be used to warm the soil temperatures. Seeds can be planted 6-12 weeks before the last expected frost. Surface sow the seeds and tamp them to ensure good soil-to-seed contact. Mist them and keep them constantly moist but not wet. Seeds typically take about 2 weeks to germinate. It’s vital seedlings not be exposed to any lingering Spring frosts, so be patient and sow seeds accordingly. Tulsi can also be propagated by cuttings.
Seedlings can be transplanted once they have two or three sets of true leaves and you are definitely past any Spring frosts. Acclimate the seedlings to their outdoor growing conditions over the course of several days before transplanting. Tuli is typically planted or transplanted after the tropical rainy season ends. Tulsi should be spaced about one to two feet apart.
Rama Tulsi loves hot, sunny weather and can grow quite large under these ideal conditions. At the minimum, it needs six to eight hours of sunlight a day. The darker varieties of Tulsi need a lot of full sun to achieve deep coloration. Rama Tulsi will tolerate dappled shade but anything more than this will cause the plant to suffer. It needs moist, well-draining soil. The ideal soil is light and airy, but rich at the same time, such as a silty loam. It takes about 42 days from seed to harvest and about 80 days from seed to flower. Rama Tulsi likes regular watering. If you notice pests targeting your Tulsi plants, it’s likely the plants are growing in less-than-favorable conditions. It’s good to keep in mind that Broccoli, Cabbage, Kale, and Cauliflowers all dislike being grown in close proximity to members of the Basil family.
Rama Tusli is a “pick-and-come-again” crop. The plant benefits from frequent harvesting which encourages growth and deters flowering. Harvest the top-most leaves first. Once the plant reaches five to six inches in height, begin pinching the blooms off by snipping the stem just under the first set of leaflets – use the cuttings in fresh tea. Once harvested, fresh leaves should be used in the same day as they will fade quickly, or they can be dried for later use.
The seeds of Rama Tulsi are tiny but are easy to collect from mature plants. Just snip the matured flower stalks and dry them for a few days in a warm, dry place. Garble them in a large bowl and remove the plant material. The seeds will fall to the bottom of the bowl.
Tulsi makes a lovely tea. It has a floral, slightly spicy, minty, or clove-like flavor. Its taste is milder than other Tulsis but its aroma is stronger. It is a popular herb in Thai cooking. It is used as a potherb in the making of cheeses, and in liqueurs, salads, rice, jellies, and a sherbert is made using an infusion of leaves. It can be added to omelets, pestos, soups, and stirfries. It can be juiced or added to an herbal vinegar to be used as a salad dressing or made into an herbal shrub. Tulsi has also been known to be grown as a microgreen, grown similar to Cress, and harvested while still small. The microgreens look and taste great when sprinkled sparingly as a garnish on salmon or added to salads and sandwiches.
Tulsi has been used for thousands of years medicinally. Typically leaves and flowers are used for medicinal purposes, but the seeds and roots are too. What it is most known for perhaps is its reputation as a gentle adaptogen, helping the body heal from stress, mental fog, and mental exhaustion from chronic stress. It is a wonderfully aromatic herb, slightly warming and pungent too that lifts the spirits and moves stagnation. It has balancing properties that can help improve energy levels, especially after a long illness, and promotes endurance. Adaptogenic herbs like Tulsi are often taken daily over a long period of time in order to gain benefits. Tulsi is a nervine, initially stimulating but following with a strong sense of calm and feeling grounded.
Tulsi is also anti-microbial and is used topically and internally to treat bacterial, viral, and fungal infections. It is frequently used for viral herpes simplex sore outbreaks and has been shown to be effective against the fungus Candida albicans. It is used externally for ringworm infections and eczema reactions. Tulsi is a warming digestive aid, good for indigestion, and is also beneficial with ulcers, reducing stomach acid and increasing protective mucous secretions. It has antihistamine activity, making it useful in itchy skin conditions and in soothing asthmatic reactions. Tulsi is known to normalize blood sugar and blood fats including cholesterol and triglycerides. The root, powdered, is added to milk or ghee or make into a decoction for the treatment of malarial fever, bug bites, and to increase sexual stamina.
Studies have also shown that a Tulsi mouthwash was as equally effective in reducing plaque and gingivitis as the disinfectant chlorhexidine gluconate. All of the Tulsi varieties contain eugenol (oil of clove) which is antiseptic and often used in dentistry.
Rama Tulsi can affect blood sugar levels so monitor yourself closely if taking insulin. Tulsi may also have an anti-fertility effect on both men and women and should not be taken by couples wishing to conceive or by pregnant women.
Rama Tulsi is native to India.