Home Environment Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants: From Acacia to Zinnia
Basil is an herbaceous member of the mint family, Labiatiaceae, that originated in India and has been used for about 5,000 years. The most common type of basil in cultivation is Ocimum basilicum, a heterogeneous species with a number of different cultivars. Even the same cultivar may vary greatly in morphology and also in chemical composition. There is a rich history surrounding basil and a great deal of mythology. Its use once limited to royalty, the name derives from the Greek basilikos, meaning “royal.” Now, basil is grown all over the world for its culinary use as a spice. Essential oil is also produced from the leaves and the flowers for flavoring and industrial purposes, and there has been a great deal of study on the antimicrobial properties of the herb and its oil.
There is a large amount of tradition about basil on all of the continents on which it has been grown for long periods. One common thread is consideration of the herb as an enticement to love, either as a part of sacred ceremonies such as weddings or as an ingredient in aphrodisiac dishes. Holy basil, Ocimum sanctum, has long been used in sacred Hindu ceremonies and is part of both traditional Hindu weddings and funerals. In some parts of Europe, acceptance of a sprig of basil by a man indicates that he will love the woman who gave it to him forever or even formal acceptance of a marriage proposal.
Alternatively, in Greece, basil has been considered a symbol of hatred and sorrow. The plant was vilified by the influential Greek philosopher Chrysippus in
200 BCE as causing one to become dim-witted. The ancient Romans cursed basil as they planted it, believing this would cause it to grow better.
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