Bane of Beelzebub
If FDA officials ever find out about basil’s intoxicating qualities they will want to regulate it. Actually, when speaking of basil, the word “intoxicating” misleads since it implies that the herb contains toxins; “euphoric” might be a better fit, since basil’s fragrance is a cocktail of cinnamate, citronellol, geraniol, pinene, and eugenol, conjuring up cinnamon, citrus, geranium, pine, and clove. A whiff of this herb lifts the spirits so much that basil is practically the perfume of good health. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, basil is said to have sprouted around the tomb of Jesus after he rose from the grave. The word basil comes to us from the Greek, meaning “kingly,” so it’s no coincidence that this herb should be associated with the man Christian tradition considers to be King of the Jews. Of course resurrection from the dead is the cure to end all cures, but basil is recognized across many cultures as a potent medicinal herb.
In India the fragrance of basil is said to invite sattva, or harmony. One species of basil, Tulsi, or Ocimum sanctum, is a woody-stemmed, perennial plant that is considered sacred to Vishnu. In fact, the herb Tulsi is revered as the incarnation of the Goddess Tulsi. Amulets made of beads shaped from the stems or roots of Tulsi are worn by the reverent because the plant is valued as a demon repellant. There are many different kinds of basil, but all of them got their start in Asia before being disseminated by trade throughout the rest of the world. Even the Genovese basil, which seems as Italian as Columbus, originated in the tropics, so it is likely that basil arrived in the Mediterranean already crowned with its divine reputation.
Evil takes on many identities and one name for the Devil is Baal-zebub or “Beelzebub,” which is often translated from the Hebrew as “Lord of the Flies.” Because basil is credited with being able to drive off flies, vases of the pungent herb have been placed at times around the altar in Greek Orthodox churches. Some religious traditions consider Beelzebub to be a different malevolent spirit than Satan, a mere demonic lieutenant, but no one thinks of basil as an herb of secondary importance. Besides being the herbal base for pesto, basil is a good accent for summer squash dishes, rice or pasta salads, and as a leafy ingredient in savory sandwiches.
Basil is my favorite herb, and I look forward to growing it every year. I take my cues for how to cultivate basil by considering the conditions under which it evolved. Tropical Asia is warm and humid, so I wait until the soil warms up before I sow basil, and then I give the plants plenty of water. The biggest threat that faces my basil crop comes from the Dibrotica beetle, which looks like a little yellow-green Ladybug. Dibrotica beetles are a triple threat; they chew on the basil leaves, they spread viral diseases through their saliva, and they defecate on whatever they don’t consume. Dibrotica beetles taste nasty to the birds, and I’m not aware of any insect predator that can control them. I don’t use pesticide, so my only prophylactic remedy against the threat of Dibrotica infestation is to cloak the basil crop with a woven fiberglass fabric or “row-cover” called Agribon, which I buy from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply.
Agribon row-cover serves me in three ways. First, the fabric is so tightly woven that it acts to completely fence out the Dibrotica beetles, so they can’t attack the basil. We drape the Agribon over wire hoops made of #10 gauge wire that arch across the beds, forming low-profile tunnels. The hoops act to keep the fabric off the plants so that the basil leaves are not scuffed and abraded when the wind blows. We have to lift the fabric every time we harvest, and we put it back every time we finish, so that the crop is protected. The Agribon is translucent, but there are several degrees of shade created by the fabric, which is a good thing, because the basil grows just a little bit more lush and tender under the row-cover than it does under the open sun. Lastly, the aromatic oils which give basil its fragrance are volatile– that is they can blow away, as in the Italian verb volare, meaning “to fly away”– so the row cover breaks the wind and keeps the herbal essence of the crop from being exported to Los Banos. Basil is at its most potent around the time the flower heads are forming, so that’s when we start the harvest. When we cut the flowering stalks off before the plants have had a chance to set seed, they will send out new shoots. In time, we’ll harvest those shoots too. If we’re careful, we can make a single basil crop last all season long with many successive harvests, which is good for the bottom line.
Basil is supposedly good for hair too. One book on my shelf says that basil tea makes for a perfect hair conditioner and that one basil rinse will leave your coiffeur bouncing like the Breck Girl’s mane. Some traditions consider basil to be an aphrodisiac. I’ve heard that Mexican curanderas recommend that you tuck a sprig of basil into your pocket to recapture a bored lover’s wandering eye. Do any of these quasi-magical tricks work? I wouldn’t know. But I am happy to grow basil, and I like to think I’m doing my part for world peace by supplying an herb that sanctifies life, invites harmony, raises hair from the head, and flavors food even as it attracts women and repels flies.
copyright text and photos 2009 Andy Griffin