History of Basil

Basil comes in over 40 varieties (in some circles it is reported to be above 60), but the variety that comes to the minds of most people is "Sweet Basil" also known as Ocimum basilicum. It originated in Asia, but just where in Asia is not known. It could have been as far east as the Hunan region of China. The most ancient record we have of it is from India. It spread from there by seed and plants to Egypt where it was used as an embalming and preserving herb in mummies.


Basil was known in Greece in ancient times. A great legend grew up around it that it was the cure for the bite of the dragon-like creature known as a basilisk. This creature was supposed to have the head of a rooster, the body of a serpent, and the wings of a bat. Basil was said to be the only cure for its bite as well as its withering breath, which could kill plants and animals. Legend also had it that anyone who looked the basilisk in the eyes would instantly die.

Because of its imputed effectiveness against the mythological basilisk, basil was also thought to have medicinal properties when applied to the bites or stings of animals. The Romans thought that basil would only be effective if it were planted while the sower was cursing. To this day, the French term for planting basil semer le baslic also means to "rant and rave".

Basil is associated with the wife of the Hindu god, Vishnu. Her name is Tulasi or Lakshmi. When she came down to Earth she was supposed to have taken the form of basil (or perhaps it was only her hair). As such, Hindus hold the herb sacred and ask forgiveness when they touch it.

In Romania there is an old custom that if a boy accepts a sprig of basil from a girl, he is engaged to marry her. It is also tradition that basil was found growing around the tomb of Jesus. In medieval times it was thought that scorpions grew up under pots of basil.

In any case, in most countries, basil is thought to be a royal herb. "Basil" in Greek, does mean "royal" or "kingly". This may be because in many regions it was used in perfumes reserved for kings.

Basil came to America via the Massachusetts Bay Colony where it was introduced in 1621. From there its cultivation spread through the colonies. It has long been used to flavor food in the western world, but was used primarily for its aroma in India. Today it is most recognized for its influence in Italian and Thai cooking.

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Interesting Fact:

Besides being eaten basil is used in shampoos and soaps. It can even be found flavoring toothpaste.

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