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Meet Tulsi, aka Holy Basil

What do Holy Basil, Tulsi, and Sacred Basil have in common? They’re all names for the same herb, Ocimum sanctum.

What is Tulsi?

Ocimum sanctum, or Tulsi, is native to India, where it’s considered one of the most sacred daily herbs. Many households plant Tulsi right outside or inside the front door or gate to both honor the Spirits within and to protect against harmful energies. When you think of the house as a metaphore for the body, this makes loads of sense. Tulsi is a gentle yet strong clearing herb that makes the heart light and clears the mind. Used daily as both a tonic and health-promoting medicine and a meditation aid, Tulsi is enjoyed in tea and occasionally foods by folks of all ages and incomes in it’s native land.

More recently, Tulsi has traveled the world, landing solidly and quite happily in America’s health and wellness culture. Here, Tulsi’s reputation for calming, uplifting, and bringing sacredness and peace to one’s heart has made it a true star. Tea blends designed to ease stress, calm the mind, soothe anxiety, brighten depression, and bring peace to mind, body, and spirit have proliferated the marketplace, filtering beyond the herbal culture into our mainstream marketplace.

Folks can find a Tulsi in a variety of tea blends under the name Tulsi, Sacred Basil, Holy Basil, Kampoor Basil, Ocimum sanctum and Ocimum tenuiflorum, and a variety of other similar names. The key, if you’re thinking of trying a Tulsi tea is to look for the Latin or scientific name, Ocimum sanctum or O. tenuiflorum, in the ingredients list. Kampoor is the most popular garden variety of Tulsi, but there are several other varietals you may want to try growing or sipping, depending on what particular properties you are looking for in your blend.

Tulsi…so many Varieties!

Ayurveda practitioners can be quite particular about the variety of Tulsi they recommend, but most other herbal practitioners group Tulsi’s many children into one broad category they call either Holy Basil or Tulsi. For most of us, grouping them together may make a lot of sense. The differences between the varietals is subtle, or at least seems so to many of us. When you’re just getting to know Tulsi, it’s probably okay to focus on the family rather than the varietals. As you hone your practice, getting to know the differences between the varieties can help you create blends that better move you in the direction you want to go.

Kapoor Tulsi, Temperate Tulsi

According to Maria Noel Groves, “‘Kapoor’ or “temperate’ Tulsi thrives and produces best in temperate gardens.” This is the variety with which most American herbalists and gardeners are likely to be acquainted, although it is considered the least medicinal of the Tulsi family. It’s not winter-hardy, but it can handle the shorter season and cooler summer nights many of us experience. It’s also, in my experience, a reliable variety for indoor growing. I’ve harvested Tulsi from my aeroponic growing garden indoors year-round. Good lighting and frequent pruning will be your best friend, should you aim to do the same. If you’re looking for a mildly immune stimulating Tulsi with a focus on clearing away that which isn’t working (emphasis on moderate rosmarinic acid in phytochemistry terms), Kapoor Tulsi may be the one for you.

Rama Tulsi, Tropical Tulsi

Rama Tulsi, or O. tenuiflorum var. Rama, is the Tulsi most often cultivated in or near temples and sacred sites. This variety is the most balancing of the Tulsi varieites (containing balanced amounts of eugenol and rosmarinic acid) and is commonly used in meditation practice to protect the mind-body while calming and supporting the Spirit. Like many of it’s sisters, Rama Tulsi prefers tropical environments, with warm soil and ambient temperatures year-round. If you’re looking for a generally balancing and protective Tulsi, Rama Tulsi may be the one for you.

Krishna Tulsi, Tropical Tulsi

Krishna Tulsi, or O. tenuiflorum var. Shyama, is described as more fresh and peppery with leaves that are darker green and can range into purple hues with an emphasis on sharp, minty flavor (rosmarinic acid in phytochemistry terms). This is the Tulsi variety that is generally considered most medicinal by Ayurveda practitioners. Like her sisters, Krishna Tulsi prefers tropical conditions, with warm soil and ambient temperatures year-round. If you’re looking for a more balance fire, one that won’t overheat you and will boost your immune system, Krishna Tulsi may be the one for you.

Vana Tulsi, Tropical Tulsi

Vana Tulsi, or O. gratissimum, is described as more sweet with an emphasis on the anise-like aspects of Tulsi flavor (eugenol in phytochemistry terms). Like its sisters, Vana Tulsi likes tropical conditions and favors forest-like conditions so will best adapt to shaded gardens with warm soils and ambient temperatures. Vana Tulsi grows wild in India’s forests and can grow into a more tree-like or shrub-sized plant than her sisters. If you’re looking for more pain relief with a more calming energy, Vana Tulsi may be the one for you.

Planting Tulsi

Like other Basils, Tulsi likes generally warm conditions with plenty of sunshine and moderate watering. The more water you give your Tulsi, the weaker it’s medicine will be. With that said, be aware that Tulsi isn’t necessarily going to love you for creating drought conditions, either. Kapoor Tulsi, or Temperate Tulsi, grows fairly reliably and happily in sub-tropical conditions, much like many of our culinary basil cultivars. If you’re thinking about planting Tulsi, consider potting it as many of India’s households do. This will help you extend your growing season by bringing your potted Tulsi inside when the days and nights get chill.

Using Tulsi

Tulsi dries nicely. It may take longer than other herbs, due to Tulsi’s high water content. Use lower temperatures and good air flow to preserve the essential oils, if you’re using a dehydrator.

You can make tea or tincture using either dried or fresh Tulsi. If you’re tincturing with fresh leaves, use a higher alcohol content than you do for dried Tulsi. Thomas Easley offers sound advice and ratios in The Art and Science of Plant Medicine Making course and in The Modern Herbal Dispensatory: A Medicine-Making Guide.

A few leaves of fresh Tulsi steeped cold-infusion style in your water daily is a real treat, too.

Resources

Candace Hunter

Candace Hunter is a self-taught herbalist and artist who never, ever practices on guinea pigs in part because her family and friends are generally up to the job. She is co-author of The Practical Herbalist's Herbal Folio series and author of Herbalism for the Zombie Apocalypse. She edits The Practical Herbalist website and Practical Herbalist Press publications. She has also recently entered into the field of podcasting with reckless abandon. Listen to her on Real Herbalism Radio today, see her work at CandaceHunter.com, or find her on Facebook at Candace Hunter Creations.

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