Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum)
By Krystal Thompson
I can’t say enough good things about holy basil. First, in a strictly physical sense, the plant is gorgeous. Its purple flowers are delicate and painterly, and construct the most beautiful bloom towers at the plants’ full height. Also, the fragrance of the flowers is possibly my favorite scent in the entire world. In the late spring and summer, I have to actively stop myself from plunging my face into the holy basil blossoms.
There is a notion in holistic herbalism that the body craves the plants and foods that contain what it most needs. I believe this, and in fact this idea is in the forefront of many of the decisions that I make about my own vitality. After completing this monograph, the veracity with which I love holy basil makes sense to me. It is indicated to my constitution, and offers benefits to some specific physical states that are common in my life. And as I sit here enjoying this delicious and fragrant cup of perfect tulsi tea, I look forward to your personal exploration with this plant. May it be the ally for you that it is and has been for me.
Common Names: Holy Basil, Tulasi or Thulasi, St. Josephwort, Krishna tulsi, Vana tulsi, Rama tulsi, Queen of Herbs
Description/Taxonomy: Tulsi is a tropical plant which is both cultivated and found wild. Its genus Ocimum contains more than 150 species and is considered one of the largest genera of its family, Lamiaceae (mints). It is a “cousin” of the familiar culinary basil. Basils are native to tropical Asia, though many varieties grow wild in various areas of Asia and Africa. Tulsi is a fragrant, bushy perennial shrub. It is not frost-tolerant, however, so grows as an annual in more temperate climates. Leaf color ranges in varieties: Vana tulsi has light green leaves, while Krishna tulsi’s leaves are dark purple. The leaves are arranged in opposite pairs on a slightly hairy stem, and its beautiful blooms are arranged tightly in a long raceme, ranging in color from white to reddish purple. The flowers bloom in mid-summer and are loved by pollinators. Tulsi is a fantastic addition to any garden space looking to attract bees.
History and Ethnobotany: Tulsi is a very important symbol of Hinduism. A sacred altar space for the specific purpose of housing and growing this plant known as Tulsi Vrindavan is common in Hindu homes across India. It is used for purification of both the body and the environment or physical space. According to legend, the plant came into being as a manifestation of the goddess Tulsi (3), and it is worshipped as her physical incarnation. Tulsi is frequently mentioned as one of the main pillars of herbal medicine in ancient Ayurvedic texts, some dating back to as far as 5,000 BC. Its name is derived from Sanskrit, meaning “matchless one” (4). This nomer parallels both the goddess and the plants myriad benefits.
This plant was reportedly met with mixed reactions in Europe as it traveled west along early trade routes, no doubt because of its strong religious and ceremonial affiliations of other lands. But it was eventually assimilated and given the name that many westerners now associate with it: holy basil. This name is likely derived from Greek words referring to “royalty” or “king,” and it was soon assimilated into Greek Orthodox offerings and worship rituals.
African tulsi varieties are prized for their aromatic properties. For example, in South Africa tulsi is referred to as “camphor basil.” Its traditional uses on that continent include flavoring food, perfumery, insect repellence, and as a preservative for corpses (4).
Parts Used: Leaves, flowers, seeds, roots. Even the woody stalks of the plant are used! This part is traditionally harvested to make beads to be strung into jewelry and meditation malas or rosaries.
Cultivation and Harvest: Tulsi is cultivated annually from seed, though it can also be propagated from tip or root cuttings. It is typically planted or transplanted after the tropical rainy season ends (3). Tulsi loves hot, sunny weather with well draining soil and can grow quite large in these conditions. Like culinary basil, tulsi benefits from frequent harvesting to encourage growth. Once your plant’s blooms reach 5-6 inches in height, pinch them off from the stem just under the first set of leaflets. Use these cuttings to brew delicious fresh tea, and enjoy watching your plant thrive over the coming weeks!
Herbal Actions: Alterative, Analgesic, Antibacterial, Antidepressant, Antifungal, Antiviral, Antimicrobial, Anxiolytic, Cardiotonic, Carminative, Demulcent, Diaphoretic, Expectorant, Immunomodulator, Nervine, Radioprotective.
Constituents: Volatile oil (mostly eugenol), fatty acids, tannins, camphor, flavonoids, triterpenes, phenolic compounds (antioxidants). Tulsi also contains Vitamin A, Vitamin C, beta carotene, calcium, zinc, manganese, iron, and chlorophyll. Constituents reportedly vary depending on tulsi variety and growing conditions, but these listed are commonly present.
There are some important notes to make here about eugenol specifically. Due to its significant amount of this particular component, research suggests that tulsi may be a COX-2 inhibitor, like modern NSAIDS (4). Many of the plants most prized benefits are directly linked to the presence of eugenol, such as its positive effects on the immune, gastric, and central nervous systems. Studies have also directly correlated eugenol to decreased triglycerides and bad cholesterol in both human and animal patients (4).
Energetics: Warming and cooling with a sweet, pungent taste. Because of this, tulsi is indicated for cold, congested, or “stuck” conditions (6). As a nervine, it is initially stimulating, but follows with a strong sense of calm and feeling grounded. Tulsi opens the heart and mind and encourages devotion and gratitude. It is also considered to energetically support a space of attachment, that which draws and embraces prosperity (2).
Meridians/Organs Affected: Lungs, heart, blood, liver, kidney.
Medicinal Use: Tulsi stimulates the immune system, reduces mucous in the lungs and nasal passages, warms the body and induces sweating, and has the added benefit of antimicrobial properties, making it a very effective ally in times of cool, damp sickness. Its diaphoretic properties are sought especially in cases of malarial fever in the form of a root decoction (4). Tulsi, as many diaphoretics, is also used commonly as a response to skin disease and itch (2). It helps here by reducing histamine activity. It is similarly beneficial in soothing asthmatic reactions.
Perhaps its most common use, tulsi is fantastic for soothing the nervous system. Because of its high flavonoid content, it is beneficial as a healing agent to bodies that have undergone chronic stress. In animal studies, these anti-stress effects manifest as balancing cortisol levels and normalizing the size of the adrenal glands (1). As a stress tonic, de Jager compares it to ginseng and maca (2). Many also consider tulsi a premier adaptogen, helping the mind and body to better cope with stress in the broadest sense of the word: including physical, emotional, and environmental.
Perhaps due to its especially high antioxidant content, a 1999 Madras study demonstrated that hamsters were protected from developing cancer of the mouth by taking holy basil. Mice also survived radiation exposure when they had been given the herb (2). There is much evidence that tulsi reduces the cell and tissue damage caused by various forms of harmful rays and environmental toxins; an invaluable ally for those of us living in very urban areas!
As a warming digestive aid, tulsi is given for indigestion from overeating. It is considered beneficial to strengthening the agnis, or digestive fires, and is suited for this purpose for all body types. It is also a muscle relaxant and kills intestinal parasites and harmful microbes; further benefits for our complicated digestive systems. It even benefits ulcers by reducing stomach acid and increasing protective mucous secretions (2). Tulsi’s phytonutrient profile is so complex that it enhances our absorption of nutrients from food and other herbs (3), making it an excellent ally for both meals and medicinal preparations.
There has been much research lately regarding tulsi’s benefits for people with diabetes. Multiple studies have shown that tulsi normalizes blood sugar and blood fats, including cholesterol and triglycerides. A significant, placebo controlled, crossover study showed a 17.6% reduction in blood sugar in both mild and moderate diabetes cases. Another double-blind, placebo controlled study using tulsi powder also found that it significantly reduced blood pressure in patients (2).
Finally, tulsi is an excellent daily tonic, increasing physical endurance and vitality without caffeine or noted stimulants. Herbalist David Winston uses tulsi in response to poor memory, ADD, and ADHD due to the plant’s ability to enhance cerebral circulation (6). As mentioned before, it is indicated for moving “stuck” energy. In the case of the energetic nervous system, this can be beneficial for long-term depression, PTSD, and chronic stress. Similarly, this increased circulation can benefit detoxification of toxins stored in body fat. Tulsi also benefits the cardiovascular system by enhancing circulation, slightly thinning the blood, and reducing both physical and energetic heart stress (6).
Ayurveda: In Ayurvedic medicine, tulsi is classified as a rasayana, an herb that nourishes a person’s growth to perfect health and promotes long life. “The daily use of this herb is believed to help maintain the balance of chakras, and to bring out the goodness, virtue, and joy in humans” (5). My my, tulsi, we don’t mind if you do!
Allies: Tulsi and black pepper are sometimes paired together when responding to cases of deep or re-occurring fevers. It can also be combined with arjuna, a bark with cooling properties, as a general cardiovascular tonic. Tulsi has historically been combined with ginger and black pepper for asthma, and with honey for bronchitis and coughs (2). There have also been animal studies that show tulsi in combination with ashwagandha and tribulus to be particularly soothing to the stress response (4).
Culinary Use: Tulsi has a delicious floral and slightly minty flavor and the leaves are a wonderful addition to cooked preparations such as omelets, pestos, soups, and stir fries. Tulsi can also be juiced like wheatgrass and made into a refreshing herbal shrub. Ghee preparations with the fresh leaves and flowers are also common. Finally, and perhaps most deliciously, Rosemary Gladstar suggests using raw apple cider vinegar and fresh tulsi to make an herbal vinegar. Simply pack a wide mouth quart jar about three-quarters full with holy basil leaves, then cover nearly to the top with raw, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar. Cap it, shake gently, and allow to infuse in the sun for 3-4 weeks. Once it’s ready, strain out the herbs and use the infused vinegar as a salad dressing or base for a daily toddy (5). YUM.
Cautions and Contraindications: Possibility of digestive distress if copious amounts are used in a small period of time, though this is unlikely. Though there are no reports of toxicity for tulsi, those with hypoglycemia should use cautiously, as well as folks taking anti-coagulant drugs. Tulsi may also stimulate uterine contractions and have slight anti-fertility effects, so pregnant women or those who wish to become pregnant should use cautiously.
Dosage and Method of Delivery: Traditionally, tulsi is taken as a tea, in a dose of roughly 3 tsp of herb brewed into water, per day. Many people, myself included, have success with higher doses and can drink the tea freely. It is suggested that you gradually increase the amount of tea you’re taking until the desired effect is achieved. It can also be used in its powdered form, and/or prepared as a tincture.
For fevers, a folk preparation includes cooking onion and tulsi in coconut oil and applying this mixture directly to the forehead. For diarrhea, rice pudding is prepared with the soaked seeds. For ear infections, tulsi can be infused in mustard oil and applied with fresh garlic juice (2).
Khalsa, Karta Purkh Singh. “Healthy Winter Teas,” www.kpkhalsa.com. November 2014.
Tierra, Michael and Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa. The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs. Lotus Press, 2008.
“Tulsi: Queen of Herbs: India’s Holy Basil.“ www.holybasil.info/history.
Tewari, Devesh. “A Review on Phytoconstituents of Ocimum (Tulsi).” Kumaun University, Uttarakhand, India. 2012.
Gladstar, Rosemary. Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide. Storey Publishing, 2012.
- Metzger, Jane Cookman. “A Close Study of Holy Basil.” Mother Earth News, 2015.