Basil is not only one of the tastiest herbs to use in the kitchen, but also one of the healthiest. Part of the mint family (Lamiaceae), basil likely originated in India, but today it is most commonly associated with Italian and Thai cuisine, and it grows in gardens all over the world. It is still used as a medicinal herb in India and elsewhere.
Basil leaves have traditionally been used to provide relief from indigestion and as a remedy for irritation of the skin and digestive tract. In Thai herbalism, the plant is also used for coughs. It has a long list of other uses, including treatment for stomach spasms, kidney conditions, and insect bites. The plant has antiviral, antibacterial, and antiproliferative (inhibiting the growth of malignant cells) effects. It even has some insecticidal properties, possibly because it contains methyl cinnamate.
Basil has been used orally as an appetite stimulant, antiflatulent, diuretic, lactation stimulant, gargle, and mouth astringent. It’s a rich source of vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron.
The herb contains strong-smelling oils that are composed primarily of compounds called terpenoids, which give basil its unmistakable aroma. Essential oils such as these are used in perfume and aromatherapy. They are also the reason basil is such a health-promoting herb: some of these terpenoids—particularly eugenol, thymol, and estragole—play a role in the plant’s antibacterial properties, for example. Thymol (which is found in even higher concentrations in thyme) is also a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.
If you’re suffering from a stomach ache, basil tea is a natural way to ease the digestive system. It can calm your body, and the micronutrients (including potassium) can help rid you of feelings of nausea and cramping in the stomach.
Roughly chop 20 fresh basil leaves (to help release the oils) and place in a mug. Fill the mug with boiling water, cover with a saucer, and steep for 10 minutes. Strain before drinking, if desired
If you have acne, a basil blemish mask is your solution. In a blender, combine ¼ cup of plain yogurt with 25 fresh basil leaves and blend on high speed until smooth. Apply evenly to your face and leave on for up to 30 minutes. Rinse with cool water.
Poor hygiene, oil, makeup, dead skin cells, and cumulative exposure to sunlight all contribute to enlarging your pores: the surrounding skin loses its firmness and the pore may appear larger because of the lack of support. Excessively clogged pores can lead to blackheads. Fortunately, basil can help.
In a blender, combine 30 fresh basil leaves with ½ cup of boiling water and blend on high speed until smooth. Let sit for 15 minutes to cool down, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a glass container with a tight-fitting lid. Use a cotton swab or ball to apply the toner to your face in the morning and evening. The toner will keep in the refrigerator for up to 7 days.
Basil is a strong anti-inflammatory. But what causes inflammation in the first place is eating too many refined carbohydrates: cakes, cookies, breads, crackers, and—you’ve got it—pasta. There are a few things you can do to make your pasta healthier and taste better, too.
First, cook pasta until al dente or slightly firm to the bite. Mushy pasta makes it too easy for your digestive system to use the available carbohydrates. This means the energy extracted from the pasta enters the bloodstream too quickly, causing a spike in blood sugar and a biological cascade that contributes to inflammation.
Second, make your pasta dish with a basil pesto instead of cream sauce. You’ll save calories and garner the anti-inflammatory effects of the basil. You’ll need the following ingredients:
3 cups fresh basil leaves
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup pine nuts
Pinch sea salt and fresh ground black pepper
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
In a food processor, finely chop the basil, Parmesan, pine nuts, and salt and pepper. Add the oil and garlic and pulse to combine. Be careful not to over-process — the pesto should be thick with some texture.
People with serious kidney or liver damage should not consume basil essential oil, as they may have trouble eliminating it.
Time to Plant: Spring, after threat of killing frost has passed; can be sown indoors 6 to 8 weeks before last frost date
Time to Harvest: Early summer through early fall
Location: Full sun
Soil Type: Well-drained
Excerpt from: Power Plants © 2014 by Frank Ferragine and Bryce Wylde. Photographs © 2014 by Shannon J. Ross. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. Available at www.harpercollins.ca.