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Exploring Basil: A Simple Plant With a Complicated Story

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Basil plant

Basil plant

How to Describe Basil

There are those who say that basil tastes of licorice and cloves—both sweet and spicy. My interpretation is far less descriptive or poetic. For me, basil tastes amazingly, wonderfully, brilliantly . . . like basil. There is simply no other herb that possesses such heavenly flavor and scent.

Please indulge me for just a moment and imagine:

Imagine These Amazing Foods

  • A sun-warmed fresh tomato cut into thick slices, layered with freshly made mozzarella cheese, and then adorned with the top-most leaves of a basil plant, snipped just moments ago.
  • Al dente pasta tossed with a fruity virgin olive oil, a grinding of fresh black pepper, and then topped with crisp bacon, shavings of Pecorino-Romano cheese, and a chiffonade of basil leaves.
  • Thick slices of crusty ciabatta bread, brushed with olive oil and grilled until gently golden, the edges are slightly charred. A spoonful (or more) of garlicky pesto is placed on top. It melts with the warmth of the bread, and every crevice is filled with the fragrance and taste of basil oil.

From these musings, it might seem that basil plays little more than a supporting role in many dishes. But is there a Mediterranean cook who could do without it? I believe in every Tuscan kitchen sits a wooden dowel for rolling pasta, a deep kettle for simmering Bolognese, and a mortar and pestle stained green from years of pounding basil leaves into pesto.

Since this herb is held in such great esteem in the Mediterranean region, it would be logical to assume that is originated there. Not true. The history of basil spans at least 5,000 years.

Where the Story of Basil Began

There are fanciful tales of toxins and tonics, sagas of saviors and scorpions—how did such a beautifully simple (or simply beautiful) plant obtain such a complicated past? Which story are we to believe?

Some historians believe that basil originated in Africa. More than 4,000 years ago it was used by the Egyptians for embalming. And basil is referenced in some of the 700 herbal medicines listed in the Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 B.C.).

Other historians believe that basil originated in India. This close cousin of mint is indigenous to the lower hills of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh (south of Pakistan) but cultivated throughout all of India. Named Tulsi (holy basil), this fragrant herb is cherished in India for its healing properties. For those of the Hindu faith, tulsi is an essential part of the worship of Vishnu.

Then It Traveled Away From Home

The history of basil became a bit muddled once it left its place of origin. Some say that Alexander the Great brought basil to Greece around 350 B.C., but it did not enjoy the positive reputation accorded to it in India. Ancient Greeks associated basil with misfortune, believing that basil would flourish only in areas where there was poverty, hatred, and abuse. Greeks came to believe that basil could only successfully be sown if the seeds were cast while ranting and swearing. The French verb semer le baslic (sowing basil) means "to rant."

However, other sources state that basil was reputed to be the only cure for the bite of the basilisk—a dragon-like creature appearing as part snake, part bat, and part rooster. Basil’s effectiveness against the basilisk thus imbued it with the magical ability to cure insect stings and animal bites. Strangely enough, herbalists at the same time were also theorizing that basil leaves left unattended would turn into a scorpion, and that simply smelling basil would cause a scorpion to form in one's brain.

Basilisk: The Mythical King of the Serpents

Pliny the Elder described the basilisk merely as a snake with a golden crown (perhaps a hooded cobra?), but with repeated telling the tale was embellished, and over years the crowned snake gained the head of a rooster, wings of a bat, and became a symbol of the Antichrist.

It was said that the basilisk could freeze living things with its gaze, melt objects with its venom, and kill with a mere glance of its eye.

Fourth-Century Redemption

In the early 4th century, the legend of basil took an entirely different turn.

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St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, was credited with discovering relics of the original cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.

According to legend, Helena was led to the site by following a trail of basil—basil which purportedly sprang from the places where Jesus’ blood was shed and fell to the ground.

A depiction of the crucifixion

A depiction of the crucifixion

Fast Forward One Millennium

In 1500 (give or take a few years), basil was introduced to Northern Europe. In England basil was held in contempt because it would not grow when planted next to rue (Rutaceae). Herbalists thought that rue could protect against poisons, therefore anything that would not flourish next to it was held in suspicion.

Hardy Rue

Rue is a hardy evergreen shrub with pungent, musky leaves. Mentioned by Pliny the Elder and Shakespeare, rue is nicknamed the “herb of remembrance,” and was used by physicians and herbalists as an antidote to poisons and a cure for plague.

And The Rest Is History

Basil traveled to North America with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1621. From there it spread through the colonies and the rest, as they say, is history.

Though favored today as a culinary herb, there are still fables and tales attached to basil. In Crete, basil is considered an emblem of Satan and is placed on window ledges to repel him. But in Romania, if a boy accepts a sprig of basil from a girl, they are engaged to be married.

I don’t know about warding off the devil, but I think basil is Heavenly. As for attracting a soul mate? My husband and I have been married for 39 years, and I use basil in many of our meals. I doubt that basil is the only key to our successful marriage, but I’ll keep cooking with it. Why take chances?

How to Grow Basil

Botanical Name: Ocimum basilicum

Plant type: Herb

Sun exposure: Full Sun

Soil type: Loamy

The authors of the Old Farmers' Almanac have created a page to explain how to plant, grow, and harvest basil.


Herb-Lovers Lemony Orzo Salad

Herb-Lovers Lemony Orzo Salad

Herb-Lovers Lemony Orzo Salad

You don't have to cook with basil to enjoy its lovely fragrance and flavor. In fact, using it fresh as in this lemony-orzo salad, really allows the bright anise taste to shine. This would be a perfect summertime side dish with roast chicken or fish or serve it as a main dish for your vegetarian friends.

Tuscan Stuffed Chicken Breasts

Tuscan Stuffed Chicken Breasts

Tuscan Stuffed Chicken Breasts


  • 4 medium chicken breasts, boneless, skinless
  • 1/4 cup provolone or Asiago cheese, shredded
  • 2 tablespoons sun-dried tomatoes, oil pack
  • 2 tsp. green onions, minced
  • 2 slices prosciutto, chopped, lightly sautéed and cooled
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons basil pesto (I used homemade but you could use jarred pesto)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Italian bread crumbs, seasoned
  • 2 tablespoons Panko bread crumbs

Other things you will need

  • Sharp knife (serrated works best)
  • baking sheet
  • parchment paper


  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Using your sharp serrated knife, cut a deep pocket in each chicken breast. Begin by making a slit in the widest side of the breast. Work carefully so that you do not tear the flesh.
  3. Combine the provolone or Asiago, sun-dried tomatoes, green onions, and chopped crisped prosciutto. Divide the filling among the 4 chicken breasts; push carefully into each pocket.
  4. Place a sheet of parchment paper on your baking sheet. Place the stuffed chicken breasts on the parchment.
  5. Combine the sour cream and pesto. Using the back of a spoon coat the top of each breast portion with the sour cream/pesto mixture.
  6. Combine the Italian bread crumbs and the Panko. Pat on each breast portion.
  7. Bake in preheated oven for about 20 minutes or until no longer pink.
Northern Italian Pasta with Pesto, Potatoes, and Green Beans

Northern Italian Pasta with Pesto, Potatoes, and Green Beans

Northern Italian Pasta With Pesto, Potatoes, and Green Beans


  • 2 cups sliced Yukon gold potatoes
  • 2 cups sliced fresh green beans. (Look for green beans that are thin/young and free of blemishes)
  • 2 cups medium-size pasta (trofie, penne, fusilli, or gemelli) uncooked
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup pesto (homemade is best)
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese


  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil (at least 4 quarts). Season heavily with salt.
  2. When the water comes to a simmer drop in the potato slices and cook until almost tender—about 4 minutes. Lift out with a skimmer and set aside.
  3. Next, drop in the green beans. I remove the stem end and cut them in half, leaving the blossom end intact. Cook about 3 minutes or until tender-crisp, and remove with a skimmer and set aside with the potatoes.
  4. Add the pasta to the pot, give it a stir and cook according to package directions until the pasta is desired tenderness. It should be supple with a little bite.
  5. When pasta is cooked, reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water and then drain.
  6. Add the olive oil to a large saute pan over medium heat. Toss in the potatoes and green beans and the freshly cooked, drained pasta. Cook for a minute or two to reheat. Stir in the pesto and continue to cook and stir until everything is coated with pesto and is heated through. If the dish seems "dry" stir in some of the reserved pasta cooking water.
  7. Serve and garnish with the grated Parmesan.
Pasta With Fresh Spinach/Basil Cream Sauce

Pasta With Fresh Spinach/Basil Cream Sauce

Pasta With Fresh Spinach/Basil Cream Sauce

I have a startling revelation to share with all of you. I have an alter-ego, a persona imbued with super-powers, the ability to saturate every dish that I make with love. Yes, I'm Carb Diva, and when wearing my super-hero costume (a ruffled apron) I created this meal of pasta with fresh spinach/basil cream sauce.

© 2015 Linda Lum

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