Tulsi, or Ocimum tenuiflorum, is commonly called holy or sacred basil. It is a sun-loving herb with aromatic leaves that have a spicy clove-like scent. Basil grows between 18 to 24 inches high. Tulsi develops narrow red or green leaves with pink flowers. Both an ornamental and edible plant, tulsi is also used in scented gardens or planted along the edge of pathways where walkers brushing against it release its heady aroma. A handful of tulsi in a tub of hot water creates a relaxing aromatic bath.
Tulsi originates in Asia and Africa as well as some Pacific islands. The trade caravans along the Silk Road brought tulsi to Europe from India in the 16th century. The colonists migrating to America brought it with them in the 17th century. Tulsi has a history of being a sacred herb in the Hindu religion in India. Hindu households used this herb to protect the spirit of the family. The British made Indians swear an oath on a sprig of tulsi instead of a Bible in a court of law during British colonial rule.
Tulsi grows as a perennial in tropical climates. In cooler regions, it grows as an annual because it does not survive the winter. Sow tulsi by seeds or transplant seedlings into a garden. Any exposure to frost kills tulsi. Protect tulsi from any temperature close to freezing. Plant outside after all danger of frost has past. Seeds germinate in four to five days. Tulsi grows well indoors in pots in cooler climates.
Tulsi foliage is normally harvested just as flower buds have started to appear. When harvesting to make tulsi vinegar, pick both the leaves and open flowers, which will add color to the vinegar. Once the seeds have formed, tulsi looses its flavor. Harvest the leaves on a dry day in the morning after the dew dries and before the temperature rises for the day. Dry tulsi on racks or trays in a warm, well-ventilated area out of the sun for 24 hours.
Tulsi is an ingredient in several Italian and Thai dishes. Use tulsi either fresh or dried. It flavors vegetables, meat, fish, sauces, stews, dressings, herbal teas, liqueurs and mixed drinks. Tulsi adds a complimentary flavor to tomatoes. One of the most common sauces made with tulsi, pesto is a combination of tulsi, oil, garlic, cheese and nuts, and is served over pasta.
Tulsi in folk medicine treats boredom, cancer, convulsion, deafness, diarrhea, epilepsy, gout, hiccups, impotency, insanity, nausea, sore throat, toothaches and whooping cough. It repel insects; place it near a window to chase away flies. According to James A. Duke, author of The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook, tulsi's essential oils contain anti-viral, anti-microbial, antioxidant and anti-cancer properties.