Lessons in Magical Herbalism: Basil
Herbal Magic - Basil
Basil is native to India where it has been cultivated for over 5,000 years. It’s actually a member of the mint family. It's well known for its uses in Thai cooking and Italian cuisine, but it has had many uses-- culinary, medicinal and magical. It’s a low-growing, bushy green herbs with very pungent oils that give it its highly flavorful and aromatic qualities. It's extremely popular, being one of the most commonly grown garden herb here in the US.
Basil reminds me of late spring and early summer. At this time of year, the basil in my herb garden is just so fragrant that it overpowers everything else. I love sitting out on spring mornings with a cup of tea inhaling the sweet scent in the air. And I love having a fresh supply of basil on hand to throw into salads, stir fries and sauces. But the real reason basil makes my top 10 list of favorite herbs to grow is because it has such an amazingly rich place in history and folklore.
Warning-- after you learn more about it, you may be tempted to run out and get a plant or two!
Mmmmm -- Basil
Details About Basil
Ocimum basilicum L.
Sweet basil, “Witches herb”, St. Joseph’s wort, common basil, garden basil, American dittany
USDA Hardiness Zones:
Any, plant after last frost. Can be grown as a houseplant if you have a sunny enough windowsill, preferably south-facing, or if you can supplement with grow lights.
Basil Seeds are TINY!
Recommended Herb Gardening Book:
- Start in pots from seed about 6 weeks before the last spring frost. The seeds are very small so don’t actually bury them—just sprinkle them over a damp peat mix and tamp them down gently.
- Transplant outdoors as soon as the danger of the last frost is past and the ground is warm enough for them.
- Basil love to be grown in raised beds in full sun—they are true sun-worshipers, though they don’t mind a little shading from the harshest part of the day where the sun gets very hot.
- Transplant them the way you would tomatoes— bury it deep, with the soil line coming 2/3 of the way up the plant (remove leaves below that line). That will help the plant produce more roots, making it stronger and more productive.
- You can also raise basil in pots on a sunny step or windowsill—one 6-inch flowerpot or a coffee can with lots of drainage holes is the perfect size for it. For raising it in pots, use a non-soil growing medium for herbs rather than potting soil and avoid topsoil altogether.
Water and Feeding:
- Water regularly. Basil likes moist, well-drained soil in general. Keeping it mulched well can really help maintain the moisture.
- If the basil begins to wilt, most likely it just needs a little water and it should come right back.
- Here’s a little tip that works for almost all herbs, but for basil in general: fertilize sparingly. When the plant has to work a little for survival it tends to be more productive. Plants that get too much of a good thing get a little lazy. So don’t give it one of those steady release fertilizers—instead, mid-way through the season, give it a fertilizer boost. If you have a very long growing season like I do, give it a second boost 3 or 4 months later.
- When it gets very hot, basil tends to bolt. That’s the best time to provide it with a little shade and a cool afternoon shower.
- If the bottom leaves start getting yellow, it most likely means the plant is stressed. It’s gotten too much, or too little, water and/or fertilizer. So either give it a rest (if it has had too much) or give it a boost (if it has had too little) and it should come back.
- Prune it often to encourage bushiness.
- Basil will try to bloom often after it gets going. It produces little clusters of white flower buds. Pinch the flowers back. Basically, the plant’s whole purpose in life is to breed. If it drops seeds it’ll die. Your basil will live longer and be more productive if you just pinch off the tips with buds whenever you see them.
- If you have plenty of plants, you may want to let some of them go to seed—the seeds can be dried and saved for next year, or you can use them as well for various purposes.
Try some different flavors other than sweet basil-- you can get Thai basil, purple basil, lemon basil or orange (citrus, not color) basil. They all have their awesomely unique 'basily 'flavor.
These are Basil Blossoms
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A very tasty treat if you're the type of person who loves that little hint of lemon in most foods.
I Love Eating Basil
Pruning basil encourages growth, and prune-harvesting regularly gives you a nice, steady supply for daily use. At the end of the season, when the plant stops producing (if you live in a colder climate) or when the plant begins turning woody (if you live in a warm climate), just pull it up and harvest the whole plant.
Basil is wonderful fresh- chopped basil or whole leaves into any food, cooked or raw: sauces, salads, green smoothies, stir fries, pizzas, etc.; but of course it doesn't last forever.
For culinary uses when out of season, I prefer to freeze my basil. Chop it up and mix it liberally with olive oil. Then fill ice cube trays with it and freeze it. Then take your basil cubes out and put them in a zip-lock bag. Then just throw a cube in your sauce or stir fry as you go along.
For magical uses and various crafts, I prefer to dry it. Take a bunch of basil and tie it, then roll it in a piece of newspaper or paper towel (like a cone around it) and hang it upside-down somewhere dry. Another method is to strip off all the leaves and put them in a clean shoe box. Leave it in a warm, dry place, shaking it about twice a day, until it’s all dry. It’s not a good idea to dry basil in the oven as heat destroys the volatile oils.
Basil Brightens my Porch
Making a Poultice
If you don’t like the idea of chewing and spitting, do it the 21st century way:
- put basil (or whatever herb you are using) into a food processor
- add just enough water to make a thick paste
- Spread it over the bite or inflicted area
- Cover with a clean cotton gauze or cloth; keep it intact with an ace bandage or elastic bands
- Change it once or twice per day
* Again, not kidding-- consult a health care specialist before playing with herbal remedies.
Medicinal Uses of Basil
*IMPORTANT MESSAGE TO READ: DO NOT take the following as medical advice. I am simply providing information about how herbs have been used medicinally, both in ancient and modern times, for those interested in herbalism. I may even relay my own experiences but I DO NOT RECOMMEND that YOU use any herbal remedies without first consulting a qualified professional. Please remember that even common culinary herbs can be dangerous when taken in quantities that exceed normal food seasoning.
Let’s talk safety of basil up front: This plant’s natural oils are a known carcinogen—however you’d have to take somewhere from 100 to 1000 times beyond the average culinary use for it to even pose a small risk. Because of this, it’s generally considered safe to consume, but it's important to be informed and make your own decisions.
Topical Uses: Basil was long used to treat snake bites and bug bites, as well as minor skin infections, by making a poultice. Healers would chew it up until it was well mashed, then spit it onto the wound to cover it up.
While this might be a safe option for mosquito or ant bites, please remember-- if you are bit by a snake or a dangerous spider like a brown recluse or something, don’t reach for basil; go to the hospital.
Taken Internally: Basil tea is used to relieve a number of digestive problems, such as upset stomach, vomiting and stomach cramps. This is especially true if you have the flu or menstrual cramps.
Because it’s a stimulant it’s also used to ease depression and fatigue.
Stop Those Annoying Basilisks from Attacking
Scott Cunningham, Author of "Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner," on Herbal Magic:
Recommended Wicca Books:
Cunningham's books are just excellent for those who like to practice kitchen witchery and work with herbs. This book will give you some great ideas of how you can use basil and other common kitchen herbs in potions, incense, baths, petitions and other magical endeavors.
What can basil tell you about your lover?
Put two leaves—one for you and one for your lover—on hot coals. If they burn peacefully, the relationship will be peaceful. If they sputter and crackle, the relationship will be fiery. If they crack or fly apart, the relationship would be terribly volatile and you should run now!
Have you been wondering if the person you’re with has had a lot of lovers before you? Place a basil leaf on their hand—it’ll wither if the person has been promiscuous.
Magical Uses of Basil
Have you been troubled by any pesky basilisks lately? You know, those snake-like creatures that most commonly appeared in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? You may want to arm yourself with some basil.
To begin with, the Latin name basilicum comes from word basilisk. This is because Basil was believed to magically cure people of basilisk bites and fearful gaze. In fact, just eating your basil can help ward off attacks. I can vouch for this personally—I eat pesto on a regular basis and I’ve never been attacked by a basilisk.
People in ancient Greece and Rome also believed scorpions came from basil-- if you hid some leaves under something like a brick or a flowerpot, eventually people believed they'd turn into a scorpion. And if you needed to perform an exorcism, basil was your go-to herb. One way to ward away evil spirits was to sprinkle it all over the floor—apparently evil can’t reside where basil is scattered.
For these magical powers, however, you couldn't just use any old basil. You needed to grow some really angry basil by cussing and swearing as you planted it. This would make your basil particularly nasty stuff. For this reason, people once thought of basil as a symbol of hatred for a while.
Basil grown under nicer conditions, however, was believed to help cultivate loving feelings. Basil's loving properties were found to help bring couples together-- if you gave someone a sprig of basil as a token of love in medieval Europe, and it was believed they would fall in love with you. Basil has been a prime ingredient for love spells and potions to this very day. Women who want to attract men should put a basil plant outside of their door. Men who want to win a woman’s heart should give her a bouquet with basil in it.
The scent of basil is good for soothing hurt feelings between lovers-- if you and your mate are arguing, nonchalantly go and make yourself a basil brew. Invite your significant other into the kitchen for a chat. The anger should begin to fade so you can talk more peacefully. Another option is to bring your angry other half out into the herb garden near your plants to talk.
If you want to draw your lover’s attention and affection, rub your body down with fresh basil leaves. If you want your lover to stay true to you forever, sprinkle dried, powdered basil over the person while he or she is sleeping—particularly over the heart.
People used to believe Witches drank basil juice to fly—sorry to report, I’ve had no success with this yet. Most likely this means it was used in teas and potions used when inducing trances or astral projection.
The Hindus consider basil a sacred herb of Vishnu, and in Haiti it was sacred to Erzulie, Goddess of love. So if you honor these Gods you may wish to place some basil plants or basil infusions on the altar.
"Isabella and the Pot of Basil"
Earth Power: Techniques of Natural Magic by Scott Cunningham
Back To Eden by Jethro Kloss
Your Backyard Herb Garden by Miranda Smith
WebMD - Basil
Recommended Herbal Guide:
Jethro Kloss originally wrote this groundbreaking guide to natural remedies and healthy living back in the early 1900s. His legacy lives on; his family revises, updates and expands it periodically. A great addition to reference shelves!
© 2014 Mackenzie Sage Wright
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