The History of Basil

The History of Basil from Food to Medicine to Religion

Close up of basil leaves
Judith Haeusler / Getty Images

Today, basil is one of the most widely-used culinary herbs in the world. With so many culinary uses from basil pesto to homemade spaghetti sauce and savory desserts to fresh fruit salads, basil runs the gamut in the kitchen.

Origins of Basil

Basil is called by many names like sweet basil or even Thai basil, but all of its common names refer to the herb's botanical name, Ocimum basilicum. Basil is a member of the large mint family, or Lamiaceae family, along with other culinary herbs like rosemary, sage, and even lavender.

It is believed that basil has origins in India, but the herb has been cultivated for over 5,000 with its reach spreading to all corners of the globe. There are some indications that basil may have originated even farther east than India with ancient records from 807 A.D. suggesting that sweet basil was used in the Hunan region of China at that time. Basil eventually migrated westward as whole plants as it could be grown easily indoors and away from exposure to cold climates and frost. 

Varieties of Basil

With its wide culinary reach, different varieties of the basil plant have been adopted into the cuisines of different cultures. The flavors of sweet basil are all too familiar to Italian dishes where it is used liberally, whereas Thai basil (O. basilicum var. thyrsiflora), lemon basil (O. X citriodorum), and holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) have become a staple in many Asian cuisines. 

History of Basil

Basil has long been used in culinary traditions, but its history is rich with other uses in society.

In ancient Egypt, basil was likely used as an embalming and preserving herb as it has been found in tombs and mummies. Perhaps because of its embalming applications, basil was also a symbol of mourning in Greece where it was known as basilikon phuton, meaning magnificent, royal, or kingly herb. Basil also has a strong history in ancient traditional medicines like Ayurveda, the traditional medicinal system of ancient India, in addition to other medicinal herbal traditions.

Basil also carried diverse cultural and symbolic meaning through history. For instance, in Jewish folklore basil is believed to add strength while fasting. In Portugal, basil plants make up part of a gift to a sweetheart or lover on certain religious holidays. Whereas in ancient Greece, basil symbolized hatred. These are but a few examples of lasting cultural important of the herb.

The Use of Basil Today

Basil continues to have diverse applications in modern kitchens and science labs. In cooking, basil is most commonly used fresh in cooked recipes. More often than not, the fresh leaves are added at the last moment, as cooking quickly destroys the herb's distinct flavor. But today as also seen throughout history, basil is not only used as a food flavoring, but also in perfumery, incense, and herbal holistic remedies. Recent scientific studies have established that compounds the essential oil of basil plants possess potent antioxidant, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties.

More about Basil and Basil Recipes

For about basil from its history and place in legends and lore to cooking tips and recipes, be sure to check out these great resources:

Basil Selection and Storage
Basil Cooking Tips
Basil History
• Basil Lore and Legends
Basil Recipes
 

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