Monday, February 9, 2009



Parts used and where grown

The leaves of basil and its many close relatives are used as medicine. The seeds are also used medicinally in India and Southeast Asia. Though it originates on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East, common basil now grows in gardens all over the world. Three important relatives with similar properties are Ocimum canum (hairy basil), O. gratissimum (basil), and O. sanctum (holy basil).

Active constituents

Basil contains a strong-scented volatile oil composed primarily of terpenoids, particularly eugenol, thymol, and estragole. Basil also has what are known as chemotypes, minor variations among plants that contain significantly different mixes of constituents. The exact components of basil oil vary widely, being affected not only by these chemotypes but also by factors such as the time of day of harvest. This may account for some of the variability in scientific research and reports of medicinal efficacy of basil from culture to culture.

Preliminary studies on holy basil and hairy basil have shown that the leaf and seed may help people with type 2 diabetes control their blood sugar levels. While the action-mechanism of the leaf is not understood, the seed may work by providing dietary fiber, which helps prevent rapid blood sugar elevations after meals. In addition, the seed has been found to relieve constipation by acting as a bulk-forming laxative in one uncontrolled human study. A similar study showed the seeds useful in elderly people who experienced constipation after undergoing major surgery.

The volatile oil of basil has shown antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral activity in test tube studies. It is also believed to act as a carminative, relieving intestinal gas, and as a mild diuretic, though these actions have yet to be definitively proven.


How much is usually taken?

A tea can be made by steeping 1 teaspoon of basil leaves in one cup of water for ten minutes. Three cups of this tea can be drunk per day. Capsules of basil can be taken in the amount of 2.5 grams per day. The volatile oil can be taken internally in the amount of 2 to 5 drops three times per day.

Side Effects

Are there any side effects or interactions?

Although concerns have been raised about the possible cancer-causing effects of estragole, a component found in variable amounts in basil volatile oil, small amounts of basil would not seem to pose a significant threat. However, because some herbal books suggest that estragole may be potentially carcinogenic and has been thought to stimulate uterine contractions, some herbal experts feel it may be best for pregnant or breast-feeding women to avoid use of the herb, especially the volatile oil. People with serious kidney or liver damage should not use basil volatile oil internally, as they could theoretically have trouble eliminating it from their bodies. However, use of basil as a seasoning in food is unlikely to be of concern.

At the time of writing, there were no well-known drug interactions with basil.

Drug Interactions

At the time of writing, there were no well-known drug interactions with basil.


1. Grieve M. A Modern Herbal vol 1. New York: Hafner, 1967:86.

2. Nadkarni AK, Nadkarni KM. Indian Materia Medica vol 1. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1976:861–7.

3. Farnsworth NR, Bunyapraphatsara N (eds). Thai Medicinal Plants. Bangkok: Medicinal Plant Information Center, 1992:180–2.

4. de Vasconcelos Silva MG, Craveiro AA, Abreu Matos FJ, et al. Chemical variation during daytime of constituents of the essential oil of Ocimum gratissimum leaves. Fitoterapia 1999;70:32–4.

5. Viseshakul D, Premvatana P, Chularojmontri V, et al. Improved glucose tolerance induced by long term dietary supplementation with hairy basal seeds (Ocimum canum Sim) in diabetics. J Med Assoc Thai 1985;68:408–11.

6. Agrawal P, Rai V, Singh RB. Randomized placebo-controlled, single blind trial of holy basil leaves in patients with noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. Int J Clin Pharmacol Ther 1996;34:406–9.

7. Rai V, Mani UV, Iyer UM. Effect of Ocimum sanctum leaf powder on blood lipoproteins, glycated protein and total amino acids in patients with non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. J Nutr Environ Med 1997;7:113–8.

8. Kocharatana P, et al. Clinical trial of maeng-lak seeds used as a bulk laxative. Maharaj Nakornratchasima Hosp Med Bull 1985;9:120–36.

9. Muangman V, Siripraiwan S, Ratanaolarn K, et al. A clinical trial of Ocimum canum Sims seeds as a bulk laxative in elderly post-operative patients. Ramathibodi Med J 1985;8:154–8.

10. Farnsworth NR, Bunyapraphatsara N (eds). Thai Medicinal Plants. Bangkok: Medicinal Plant Information Center, 1992:180–2.

11. Farnsworth NR, Bunyapraphatsara N (eds). Thai Medicinal Plants. Bangkok: Medicinal Plant Information Center, 1992:180–2.

12. Valnet J. The Practice of Aromatherapy. New York: Destiny Books, trans. Campbell R, Houston L, 1982:97–8.

13. McGuffin M, Hobbs C, Upton R, Goldberg A (eds). American Herbal Products Association’s Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1997:143–5.

14. Brinker F. Herb Contraindications and Drug Interactions. Sandy, OR: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1998, 33–4.

Dutch Delft Bottle

A Dutch Delft 19th century silver-topped bottle. Dutch hall mark and Delft backstamp with maker's initials.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Herb garden: For favorite seasonings, look for kitchen doorstep

I love running my hand across the basil as I walk through the vegetable garden. I hesitate, then breathe deeply as its spicy scent fills the air.

I can't resist breaking off a stem of oregano, then crushing the leaves and holding them up to my face so I can enjoy the powerful fragrance.

For me, a garden isn't complete without herbs. Definitely basil. And oregano. And parsley. And don't forget chives, rosemary, thyme and mint.

You get the picture.

There's nothing like having fresh herbs to use all summer long. I can't imagine ribs without oregano, tea without mint, baked potatoes without chives. I dry herbs to have during the cold months. It brings back memories and scents of summer's bounty and gives me a sense of accomplishment, of self-sufficiency.

Luckily, herbs are among the easiest plants to grow. They're seldom bothered by pests or diseases. They're mainly sun-worshippers that get more aromatic and tastier when ignored. They disdain fertilizer and respond well to constant harvesting. Most thrive with little water. Even a tiny herb garden can produce more fresh herbs than a family can use.

Herbs fall into the same classifications as other garden plants: annuals, biennials and perennials.

The annuals grow, flower and produce seed all in one season, then die. Basil is an annual herb.

Biennials take two years to mature. Parsley falls into this category.

Then come the perennials. Most culinary herbs are in this category. Some, like oregano, need to be cut back every fall. They send out new growth in spring. Others, like sage, develop woody stems and can survive from year to year.

Further, herbs are versatile and carefree. You can grow them in the ground, in pots or in hanging baskets. They also make good neighbors in the ornamental garden. I have oregano growing alongside kniphofia and watsonia. I have thyme growing as a ground cover beneath the roses, and one raised bed in the vegetable garden has been given over to spearmint so there's plenty to clip for iced tea in summer and hot tea in winter.

I have a pot of chives on the deck as well as a hanging basket filled with sage, oregano, thyme, parsley and rosemary. They'll likely outgrow their containers by the end of the season, but meanwhile they're close at hand if I need a few sprigs to season a meal.

Why grow herbs when they're so easy to buy — fresh or dried — at the grocery store? If you've ever grown and dried your own basil or parsley flakes, or made pesto with basil picked just minutes before, you'll never want to buy packaged herbs again.

So let's go into the garden and pick a place for herbs. As long as it gets plenty of sun, the best place for an herb garden is near the kitchen or along the pathway to the front door so you walk by it every day. That's the surest way to guarantee the herbs will find their way to the kitchen table or the cooking pot. Too little sun and they'll get leggy and lanky. Herbs and shade just don't mix.

Most herbs aren't picky about soil and actually grow better in less-fertile soils. Harsh conditions can make herbs like oregano and sage even more powerfully fragrant. That said, don't put them in the toughest spot in the garden and walk away. New herb plants need pampering like any other new addition to the garden. Once established, though, the perennial herbs almost take care of themselves.

Water sparingly for best flavor and fragrance, but don't let them wilt. Most aromatic herbs prefer to be a bit on the dry side. Save the fertilizer for ornamentals and vegetables.

Plant what you love, but be bold. Try something new. If you don't like it, you can always take it out. Most gardeners start with the basics: basil, parsley, oregano or marjoram, thyme and sage. You can use them fresh or dried.

If you plant cilantro each spring, you can harvest the leaves, and if you let the plant go to seed, you'll be harvesting coriander seed. Dill can be tricky, but fresh dill leaves and seeds are a fragrant treat.

If you love oregano, why not try Greek oregano?

And mint, while it does need to be contained lest it overrun the entire garden, comes in a world of fragrances besides the usual spearmint or peppermint: chocolate mint, pineapple mint, apple mint.

Snip constantly to keep your herbs producing fresh, fragrant foliage.

Herbs like cilantro won't make it past spring before bolting (going to seed) and dying. Basil will grow all summer, but the first frosts will blacken the leaves and kill the plant. Most perennial herbs can survive mild winters with little trouble. Culinary sage is tough, although purple sage is tender. In containers, the herbs will need regular watering.

Apply a few inches of mulch to insulate the soil, conserve moisture and suppress weeds.

Finally, dress up the herb garden with a few edible flowers like calendulas, borage, violets or nasturtiums.

Whether you pronounce herbs with a hard "h" or leave it off, don't forget to put them in the garden

Here are a few herbs that can be planted now. Some, like basil, will last until the first frost while others, like rosemary and oregano, will live for many years.

(Ocimum basilicum): Summer annual. Grows to 3 feet tall. Full sun. Regular water.
Produces masses of aromatic leaves all summer. Snip off flower stalks as soon as they appear to prevent the plant from going to seed. There are dozens of varieties of basil available: purple basil, lemon basil, licorice basil, Thai basil and more. Basil is easy to grow from seed. Low temperatures and cool soil are enemies of basil seedlings, since the combination leads to damping off, and basil is very susceptible. Plant when the soil is warm, or use heating mats if starting seed indoors.

(Petroselinum crispum): Biennial usually grown as an annual. Grows to 12 inches tall. Full sun. Regular water.
Parsley produces leaves its first year. In its second year, it produces yellow flowers and seed, then dies. It's famous for being finicky to start from seed, so buy starts from the nursery. It comes as curled or flat-leaf varieties. Both have the same fragrance.

(Salvia officinalis): Perennial. Grows to 2 feet tall and as wide. Sun. Limited water.
Sage's wooly gray leaves are gorgeous. And they come in purple, green and gold as well as tricolor (purple, white and green). The plain green one is the typical culinary sage and the hardiest. Sage has no trouble with winter in my garden (elevation 1,250 feet). It sends up spires of blue flowers in summer that are beautiful in arrangements.
Cut it back every spring to encourage new growth. However, sage tends to get quite woody after a few years, much like lavender, and needs to be replaced every three or four years.

(Thymus vulgaris): Perennial, 6 to 10 inches tall; can spread wider. Sun. Limited water.
Thyme is a versatile plant. It can be a ground cover that creeps and crawls along the ground, smothering weeds. It's the perfect herb for soups, stews and poultry. It also looks good among roses. Some gardeners use it as a lawn substitute or let it grow among the grasses in a traditional lawn. It comes in many flavors, including lemon and lime. In fact, there are hundreds of varieties of thyme. It, too, can get woody, but responds well to being sheared to the ground.

(Allium schoenoprasum): Perennial. Grows to 12 to 18 inches. Sun. Regular water.
Chives are related to onions and have a similar flavor and fragrance, but milder. Each spring, they send up stems topped with light-purple flowers. I clip the flowers away and use them in flower arrangements. That way, I prevent the plant from going to seed and spreading itself everywhere. A small plant easily grows into a fat clump about a foot wide. You can divide the clump to make more plants. Keep snipping chives and they will keep growing.

(Rosmarinum officinalis): Perennial. Prostrate types grow to about 2 feet tall. Upright forms can grow to 5 feet. Sun. Limited water.
Rosemary has become part of most ornamental gardens. It looks great spilling over a wall, it is tough and carefree enough to cover large expanses of difficult-to-garden areas, it is covered with cheerful blue flowers most of the year and it has a heavenly scent. Its leathery, slightly sticky leaves are narrow and dark green, slightly reminiscent of Douglas fir needles. Give rosemary as much sun as possible and water sparingly. It can take regular watering but doesn't like wet feet.

(Origanum vulgare, O. heracleoticum): Perennial. Grows to 18-24 inches. Sun. Limited water.
Snip and use fresh throughout the season. To dry, pick just before flowering. I strip the leaves from the stems and put them in a paper bag. Four or fives times each day I shake the bag to redistribute the oregano leaves and keep them from accumulating moisture. When thoroughly dry, store in sealable plastic bags.
I prefer Greek oregano (O. heracleoticum). A warning: The purple-flowering oregano reseeds itself prolifically, so cut flowers before they go to seed if you plant this one.
Marjoram is a type of oregano, although it is milder and not as hardy in winter.

(Mentha): Perennial. Grows to 12-18 inches tall. Part sun. Prefers lots of water.
Mint is a thug. It will take over the garden, so be careful where you plant it. Give it boundaries. There's the typical light green, crinkly-leaf spearmint and the purple-flushed leaves of peppermint, but take a look at the herb section of any nursery, and you'll likely find pineapple mint, apple mint, chocolate mint and more. You have to really use your imagination to discern some of the exotic scents. Pick the leaves any time. If you're going to dry mint, it's best to pick the leaves just before it flowers.

Gold Aurene Steuben Scent Bottle

Rare Gold Aurene Steuben scent bottle--rare shape and extremely scarce. This is a rich gold bottle with beautiful hues of blue, green, platinum and even a touch of scarlet. It is correctly marked "aurene" and "3294" on the base of the bottle adjacent to the finely polished pontil. even has a sizeable portion of the original gold banner STEUBEN LABEL still present. Ht: 8". This bottle came in 2 sizes, this being the larger size. It is in perfect condition except for the end portion of the frosted dauber has been broken off and refinished. Not uncommon, the bottle is still considered in very excellent condition.

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