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Purslane - Sweet Basil

Usha R. Palaniswamy Ph.D., M.Ed.

Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum L. Labiatae) is a close relative of India's most popular and sacred Holy Basil Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum). There are about 50 to 60 different species of basil. It is native to Southeast Asia and Northeast Africa. Today basil is one of the fastest growing herbs in terms of usage in America. Historically, sweet basil was either revered or reviled depending on the culture. In Italy it was a symbol of love- a twig of basil in the hair of a man announced his matrimonial intentions to his sweetheart whilst a pot of basil on a women's balcony indicated her willingness or acceptance. But, Greeks believed basil's powerful aroma could drive one insane.

Holy Basil is considered sacred in the Hindu religion since ancient times. A basil plant in the backyard of a Hindu home represents a place of peace, piety and virtue and is ritually circled and worshipped daily with lighted lamps and offerings of flowers and food. Unmarried young Hindu women pray to the Holy Basil for a good husband and the married women for domestic peace and prosperity. Basil is also considered as representation of a goddess and is married to Lord Vishnu the Preserver- one of the three gods of Hindu trinity in a religious ceremony. Garlands of basil leaves are often the most favorite choice of botanical offering by Vaishnava -one of the preeminent religious traditions of Hinduism- in religious ceremonies whose devotional God is Lord Vishnu.

Basil is a small bushy plant, an annual or a short-term perennial, with greenish or whitish or purplish flowers. The leaves are light green on the top and gray-green on the underside. Basil leaves and flowers have a strong, fresh, clove-like scent. Because of its popularity in the United States and Europe a number of new varieties with variations in color, leaf size, flavor, and fragrance have been developed and often listed as an herb or a medicinal-herb in most seed catalogs.

Fresh Basil leaves or cut and dried leaves can be used in cooking and flavoring dishes. It is used in cooking most often with garlic, tomatoes, eggplant, and Italian dishes, and to flavor vinegar, oil, soaps and perfumes, condiments and liqueurs. Most common basil types available in the market include the Californian basil with uniform particle size, pale green color and sweet flavor, the French basil that is slightly sweeter and darker in color, and the Egyptian basil that has a camphor-like fragrance and a strong minty flavor.

Reportedly, inhaling the essential oil refreshes the mind and stimulates a sense of enchantment; leaf extract is considered a tonic and aphrodisiac, stimulating the adrenal cortex; leaves are used as mosquito-repellent, to treat ringworm, insect bites, snakebites, and acne. Basil leaf extract is used in massage oils as a nerve tonic to ease tired and overworked muscles. Basil's root paste is also used as an antiseptic in treating scorpion and snakebites in the Indian traditional Ayurvedic medicine.

Currently, O. basilicum and O. Sanctum oils are being studied for their anti-inflammatory and anti-ulcer activity (1-2). Basil oils also have anti-microbial effects and may be a potential preservative in food preparations (3). Basil may also prove to be valuable sources of anti-carcinogenic agents (4). Basil leaf extracts are anti-diarrhoeal (5); possess blood sugar lowering agents (6). Additionally Holy Basil may have the ability to prevent the early events of carcinogenesis (7). Other studies provide evidence of potent anti-HIV-1 (8), antioxidant (9), hypoglycemic and hypo-lipidemic (10) activities of basil leaves and leaf extracts.

1. Singh 1999. Evaluation of gastric anti-ulcer activity of fixed oil of Ocimum basilicum Linn. and its possible mechanism of action. Indian J Exp Biol 37(3):253-7.
2. Singh and Majumdar 1999. Evaluation of the gastric antiulcer activity of fixed oil of Ocimum sanctum (Holy Basil). Ethnopharmacol 65(1):13-9.
3. Lachowicz et al. 1998. The synergistic preservative effects of the essential oils of sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum L.) against acid-tolerant food microflora. Lett Appl Microbiol 26(3): 209-14
4. Aruna and Sivaramakrishnan 1992. Anticarcinogenic effects of some Indian plant products. Food Chem Toxicol 30(11): 953-6
5. Ilori et al. 1996. Antidiarrhoeal activities of Ocimum gratissimum (Lamiaceae). J Diarrhoeal Dis Res 14(4): 283-5.
6. Chattopadhyay 1999. A comparative evaluation of some blood sugar lowering agents of plant origin. J Ethnopharmacol 67(3):367-72
7. Karthikeyan et al. 1999. Chemopreventive effect of Ocimum sanctum on DMBA-induced hamster buccal pouch carcinogenesis. Oral Oncol 35(1):112-9
8. Yamasaki et al, 1998. Anti-HIV-1 activity of herbs in Labiatae. Biol Pharm Bull 21(8):829-33.
9. Maulik et al. 1997. Evaluation of antioxidant effectiveness of a few herbal plants. Free Radic Res 27(2):221-8
10. Rai et al. 1997 Effect of Tulasi (Ocimum sanctum) leaf powder supplementation on blood sugar levels, serum lipids and tissue lipids in diabetic rats. Plant Foods Hum Nutr 50(1):9-16

(Usha R. Palaniswamy is with the Asian American Studies Institute, School of Allied Health at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. )

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