I wonder whether anyone of my generation can as much as read the word ‘basil’ without inadvertently hearing it spoken by an irate Sybil, played by – no, not Prunella Scales – Connie Booth in Fawlty Towers.
But Basil is, of course, the common name of a well-known herb, perhaps most familiar to the majority of us as one of the key ingredients of tomato and basil soup. Botanically christened Ocimum basilicum … Ocimum coming directly from the Greek word ‘okimum’ meaning ‘an aromatic herb’ and basilicum from another Greek word, ‘basilikos,’ meaning ‘royal’ or ‘princely’ … the plant probably got the latter part of its name because the pungent smell was regarded as ‘fit for a king’s house,’ as the herbalist John Parkinson wrote the better part of 400 years ago.
In point of fact, Basil was formerly thought to possess properties that made it far more than a useful ingredient in the soup pan. Basil stand for ‘animosity’ in the language of plants, because it is said that the gardener who wishes to grow Basil must use language that would make a trooper blush while he sows the seeds or the seeds will fail to germinate.
The herb is native to southern Asia and the Middle East but has been grown for millennia in central and southern Europe, as a culinary herb, as a medicinal plant and, perhaps more surprisingly, as a small, ornamental addition to the garden.
This last use is surprising because the flowers, which appear in this month of August, are small and insignificant, being white, pale yellow or pale pink.
It is those same flowering stems that yield the medicinal parts of Basil and are a source of an essential oil with linalool and small amounts of tannin, glycosides and saponin. Linalool has a pleasant floral scent with a touch of spiciness; tannin yields tannic acid, which is used as clarifying agent in alcoholic drinks and as an aroma ingredient in many products; glycosides play numerous important roles in living organisms; and there is a long-held belief that saponin offers organismal and general human benefit; all of which led to Basil being held by our ancestors to be useful in the treatment of stomach disorders, flatulence, constipation, coughs and urinary tract infections to name but a few. It is still used to treat travel sickness, in gargles, to provide invigorating water in which to take a bath and as a compress for wounds that are reluctant to heal.
(I should add the usual rider that I am not endorsing any of these claims but am merely repeating what people have believed through the ages and, for some uses, still believe.)
An even more intriguing belief about Basil can be found in New Mexico, where many locals believe that Basil has a magnetic attraction for money and that carrying a sprig of Basil in your pocket will attract cash. Would that that were true!
And odder still are the former beliefs that a piece of Basil surreptitiously placed below a dish at a place at the dining table occupied by a woman would spoil her appetite; and the belief held by obstetricians in Elizabethan England that, if a woman in labour held a root of Basil and a swallow’s feather, she would feel no pain.
And now to one former belief, prevalent among farmers’ wives of earlier generations, that seems to have some substance in fact. If you keep a pot of Basil on a windowsill, it will discourage flies.
And yes, I’ll go along with that, for Basil really doesn’t like growing in a British garden, even if the seeds are sown to the accompaniment of robust cursing; and my experience is that a pot of Basil kept for culinary purposes on the kitchen windowsill really does deter flies.
It also imparts the most glorious scent to the kitchen, a scent that might indeed be deemed worthy of a place in a royal palace.