Aug 13, 2012

The Mundane and the Magical - Basil

Also called “Our Herb,” “St. Joseph’s Wort” or “Witches Herb”

Basil is an inspiring plant.  Although it lends itself to delightful dishes in the kitchen, it also roused fear in days of old, having thought to be a plant of witches and all sorts of evil.

Basil is a happy pot or garden herb.  It has been said that the stricter you treat it, the better it will produce for you, but I’m not one to terrorize my plants.  I believe that this suggestion was a result of the fact that basil will bush out and grow a stout, healthy plant if you snip the tops off the basil as it grows.  Many people do not like to cut down into the hard-wood of a herb, but harvesting these top leaves and letting the side leaves alone, allows for a bushier plant.  Pinch back the flowers as they form and you’ll have continued leaf growth.  You may even manage to get two good harvests.

Basil is said not to grow well near rue, one report being that it will “curl up and die.”  I have read that rue will exude a chemical that prevents some other plants from thriving beside it, so this may be where the idea that basil will not grow well near rue comes from.

Basil is an annual, so even if you bring it inside when the frosts begin, it will not last through the winter.  However, there are plenty of ways to continue to enjoy your basil after it is harvested.  Dry leaves flat on screens or in a dehydrator and keep in a glass jar.  You can also chop fresh leaves and freeze them in ice cube trays with a bit of water for use in sauces, soups or pesto.  Basil is a wonderful addition to pastas, chicken or vegetable dishes.

Medicinally, basil is rumoured to be good for the kidneys, but when researched it is found that most do not use it for internal healing at all (aside from adding it to rich food as a digestive aid.)  It is said to be a headache cure or an aid to memory, when used in aromatherapy.  Putting a few drops of basil essential oil, or a handful of fresh, crushed leaves in a steam bath and inhaled is said to help with sinus and chest congestion.  And used topically, basil is supposed to be wonderful for use healing skin and removing the sting and/or itch from insect bites.  It also boasts some aphrodisiacal qualities.

The folklore on basil is fun and fascinating.  Here a just a few of the many wild legends about basil:

~ “Named after the fearful creature the Basiliske,* it is the Devil’s plant in Greece; a charm against witches in Wales.”  Vernon Quinn 1937

*Of note - other texts say that the Basilisk got its name from basil OR got its name from the same Greek word basiliskos, which means “little king,” as basil (basilicum) did.  This is more likely than Mr. Quinn’s idea that basil was named after the serpent that could kill with a look.  Also, basil has been reported as being both a guard against, and a favoured herb of witches.

~ Culpeper says:  “Mizaldus affirms, that if it (basil) be laid to rot in horse-dung, it will breed venomous beasts; and Hollerious, a French physician, affirms upon his own knowledge, that an acquaintance of his on smelling it had a scorpion bred in his brain.”

Basil is said to be a herb of Mars, under Scorpio, which is what likely led to it being so tied to scorpions and other “venomous beasts.”  Strangely, there is lore that states basil can both call forth and protect against, snakes and scorpions.

~ Witches were said to favour basil as a flying herb.  After brewing the basil juice, they would rub their broom or horse and their bodies to allow for flying.  A flying recipe is, as follows:

Witches Brew For Flying  - as recorded by Hon. Ralph Shirley (1865-1946)

Oil or juice of Our Herb (basil)
Bats’ blood
Nightshade *
Water parsnip *
Sweet Flag

*This recipe contains two poisonous plants and if it is in fact accurate, would have to be created by an incredibly knowledgeable herb worker so as not to kill the partakers.

~ The heady scent of basil has given it the reputation of being a herb of love.  It is said to foster favour between lovers as well as quell discord within the family.  As such, it is a great pot herb for indoors.  Or one may wish to tuck a basil leaf under the pillow of their sweetheart.

~ Basil is said to be a protective herb.  Use as a floor wash or to wash windows and doors to keep your home safe.  Use in strewing herbs or floor sweeps.  Give a small pot of basil as a hostess gift to bless and protect your friend’s home.

~ Perhaps due to the coin-shaped leaves of sweet basil, the plant is also associated with money.  Carry it in your pocket or purse to attract money to you.

~ It is also found to have been used as a funerary herb amongst Hindus, placed over the breast upon burial (said to have been a rite adopted from the ancient Egyptians.)


Essential Herbal Wisdom - Nancy Arrowsmith
Mysterious Herb & Roots - Mitzie Stuart Keller
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal - Nicholas Culpeper
The Essential Herbs Handbook - Lesley Bremness
Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs - Scott Cunningham
Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic - Catherine Yronwode


mermaid gallery said...

great info! I have pinching the tops off my plants and adding them to the greens for a salad....great zip of taste....but it can be that easy.....

Debra She Who Seeks said...

I love the taste of basil -- didn't know all this lore though. Thanks for the info!

Sleepy Suzy said...

Thanks for the info - we always try to get our basil to survive the winter, and now we know we don't even have to try! Thanks!

Lisa said...

Good to know. I have one in the livingroom window.

Ms Lilypads said...

Throw in pinches of basil when you are cooking a cheese omelet. Yummy!

jaz@octoberfarm said...

i grow basil all the time but this is the first year i have really paid attention to it. i learned that you should pinch but never cut right above the joint where two new leaves have been produced. however, you must leave the original 2 to 3 growths to have a strong base for the plant. i followed this pattern and have the best basil plants i have ever had. i love basil!

Jessica Cangiano said...

I have always adored basil and consider it to be one of my favourite herbs, but when I married a native son of Italy, it took on a whole new level of importance in my kitchen. I very much enjoyed learning more about this versatile, excellent herb here, thank you, dear Rue.

♥ Jessica

Kathy said...

I was just getting ready to plant some herbs and basil was one that I intended to try again. Good to know how to do it because last time nothing much happened to it. Thanks.

Also good to know the magical properties as well.

Brenda said...

working in the garden yesterday! repotting my basil and collecting seeds for the next generation. thanks for sharing all the info!

J Herman said...

I didn't know this about rue- that it may prevent other plants from thriving near it, and I planted it in my garden. The plants near the rue haven't had any issues thriving.