Tulsi / Holy Basil: Ocimum sanctum

By Steph Zabel
Herbalist, Ethnobotanist and Educator

For thousands of years tulsi has been considered a sacred herb. Also called holy basil and “the elixir of life” it originated in India, where it became an important herb of Ayurvedic medicine, and was sacred to the Hindu god Vishnu. Amongst Ayurvedic practitioners it is known as a rayasana plant, which is a special group of herbs said to promote longevity and perfect health.

Tulsi’s popularity has now spread throughout the world and Western herbalists have also fallen in love with it. Traditionally used for a variety of ills ranging from respiratory problems to exhaustion to digestive issues, it is a remarkable plant for human health.

Tulsi is incredibly aromatic - both spicy and pungent like culinary basil (its close cousin), but also with hints of sweetness and clove to it. All upper portions of the plant – leaves, stems, flowers, and seed heads – hold this aromatic property. Even a slight touch of the fresh plant will release its beautiful scent into the air.

Modern herbalists use tulsi as an adaptogen, which is a type of herb that helps one to adapt to and overcome everyday stress. It can calm an over-active mind, help one feel more grounded during times of overwhelm, and is said to “gladden the heart.” Used consistently it can also increase energy and endurance.

It is also a lovely relaxing nervine, and a calming, centering herb useful for an anxious mind. Personally I find it to be very comforting and grounding when I feel scattered, or my to-do list seems endless.

In going back to Ayurveda’s use of tulsi as a rayasana (rejuvenative) herb, holy basil can help move an individual towards whole health and vitality, acting on many systems of the body. Due to its stimulating essential oil content it will increase and support digestion. Traditionally it was also used to protect against disease by supporting the immune system. As an antibacterial plant, it is useful herb for colds and respiratory infections and also helps to clear away excess mucous.

You may see a few different varieties of tulsi available, including rama, vana and krishna tulsi. Experiment to see which one you like best as they all have slightly different scents and tastes. Krishna tulsi has the most intense and pungent flavor. My favorite, however, is the mellow rama variety, which also happens to be the one most commonly cultivated and easily found.  


To make an aromatic cup of tulsi tea steep up to 1 Tblsp. of the dried leaf in one cup of water for 10 minutes, covered. If you are fortunate enough to have fresh tulsi leaf on hand, use twice this amount per cup of water. Tulsi also makes a wonderful iced tea during the summer months – keep a pitcher in the fridge to drink throughout the day.

Note: Tulsi is not recommended for those trying to conceive due to possible anti-fertility effects with consistent, long-term use.

RECIPE: Winter Tulsi-Rose Tea
Tulsi and rose are wonderful companions. Drink this tea when you have the winter blues or need a little pick-me-up.

Mix together:
2 Tblsp. Tulsi
1 Tblsp. Rosehips
½ Tblsp. Rose Petals

Steep up to 1 Tblsp. of the blend in 1 cup of hot water for at least 10 minutes, then strain out the herbs. Add honey if desired. 

Steph Zabel is an herbalist and educator based in Somerville, MA who helps urban dwellers connect with the plant world.  She teaches herbal classes, is available for individual wellness sessions, and is also the founder of HERBSTALK, a community herbal conference.  Learn more about her work at: www.flowerfolkherbs.com and www.herbstalk.org. 


Winston, D. and Maimes, S. Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. Rochester, VaA Healing Arts Press. 2007.




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