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There is much to know and love about Basil. This Plant Talk article features Sweet Basil’s many virtues, highlighting Basil essential oil and how to incorporate it into essential oil blends and life overall!
Basil: A Royal Aroma
Basil’s Latin name, Ocimum basilicum, is telling of its potent personality. Ocimum, from the Greek language, is believed to originate from the actual word “ocimum” (“I feel”) or be a derivation of “okimon” (“smell”). The epithet “basilicum” comes from “basilikos” (“royal”). Whether it is “feeling royal” or a “royal smell,” Basils in general have been heralded across cultures and time as a noble plant with abilities to provoke amorous feelings, dispel evil from the living and bad energy from the deceased.
Regardless of nomenclature origin it is important to note how powerful and polarizing the herb can be. Going back to the Greek language there are two words containing Basil with opposite connotations: “basilicon” (“kingly herb”—hence the sacred, elevated, and royal connotations) and “basilicus” (the king of serpents). Juxtaposing the word “basilica” (as in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a representation of high spirituality and divine power) against the “basilisk” (a snake-creature from ancient to medieval times that destroyed and killed wherever it went) may shed light upon the mixed feelings the Ocimums elicited from Homo sapiens over time. This contrast of “good” (royal, holy, sacred) and “evil” (destruction, snakes) may elucidate basil’s ability to elevate, dispel and destroy. Culpeper adroitly summarized the polarizing notions of basil: “…either makes enemies or gains lovers there is no in-between.”
Basil, Basil! Quite Contrary, How Does Your Garden Grow?
O. basilicum enjoys more water in its life compared to several of its cousins in the Lamiaceae family such as Lavender, Rosemary and Thyme. In this way, it is more closely related to the uplifting Mints, Monardas and Patchouli with their square stems and enjoyment of a bit of moisture and shade. The plant cannot tolerate stress from a lack of water and responds by increasing its levels of linalool and methyl chavicol (Arthur Tucker, 2000). Methyl chavicol, also known as estragole, is a potent chemical component. (Of note, aromatherapists look to work with O. basiliicum where linalool is the dominant chemical type.)
Sweet Basil is often called “Common Basil,” “French Basil” or “European Basil,” setting it apart from “Exotic,” “Tropical” or “Reunion” Basil with a higher representation of methyl chavicol often sought by perfumers. The Ocimum genus is native to the tropics and sub-tropics of both “old” and “new” worlds, notably Africa (Arthur Tucker, 2000). There are at least 64 species accounted for—yet basils are notorious for freely cross breeding and hybridizing—keeping many botanists on their toes.
Basil is an immediate burst of stimulating joy. Initial excitation rushes in through the throat down to the stomach: to the realms of creativity, catabolism and anabolism. The power of Basil is that it brings a veil of calm over the excitation of the mind and other internal (e.g., metabolic) processes over time. After the initial vivacious activity, it guides you to an inner sanctum, stirring up and dispelling all the “bad stuff” so peace may gently enter. Basil is a poet with the ability to enrapture even the grumpiest of fools. Its complex nature (i.e., chemistry) gives space for us to tune-out the external world and focus on our inner processes. There is something irresistibly dangerous about Basil; a feeling of eternal return, creation and extinction: Orobous.
Affinities and Usage Applications for Sweet Basil Essential Oil
Sweet basil’s essential oil is obtained through steam distillation of the flowering tops, namely leaves, of the tender-annual Ocimum basilicum. Although the herb and its essential oil have affinities for many bodily processes it has notable actions on the digestive tract and nervous system.
- Support digestive health with Basil’s stimulating essence where it shines at easing cramps, dispelling gas and encouraging overall metabolism.
- Consider blending with Fennel, Spearmint, Peppermint, Ginger or Lemongrass for use with a compress, abdominal rub or via inhalation.
- Basil has an energizing quality that supports boldness and energy while dispelling irritability, a foggy mind and lethargy
- To promote focus, uplift and clarity consider blending with Rosemary, Black pepper, Lemon or Peppermint for use with an inhaler, to diffuse or in an aromatic spray.
- If you’re looking to soothe nerves and promote mental ease consider blending with Clary sage, Bergamot, Coriander or Lavender.
- A notable anti-fungal, consider blending Basil with Patchouli, Palmarosa, Niaouli, Tea tree or Litsea cubeba for use as a topical cream or aloe-gel preparation.
Notes on Basil Essential Oil Chemistry
Basil has chemical components represented from every major aromatic chemical family, including the feisty phenylpropenoids (i.e., estragole, methyl eugenol and eugenol) which are often indicated for easing digestive upset but must be taken in low doses. When used appropriately (e.g., small dose, acute use) this essential oil is quite safe and effective. According to Battaglia, Basil essential oil has five known chemotypes: linalool (“sweet”), methyl chavicol, methyl eugenol, (E)-methyl cinnamate and eugenol. I prefer and suggest working with Sweet Basil (linalool chemotype) as it is considered gentler than the other chemotypes and what is most readily available through trusted essential oil suppliers. It is my understanding that the other chemotypes, especially oils with higher amounts of methyl chavicol, are valued in perfumery. As with most essential oils, avoid using O. basilicum (all chemotypes) during pregnancy or nursing and with young children.
Impressions of Basil Essential Oil
Physical Impressions of Sweet Basil Essential Oil
A zesty floral heat shoots to the back of the throat, up to the temples and down to the stomach in an instantaneous swoop. It is perceptibly drying on the oral and nasal tissues; a soft heat is felt on the eyes. The molecules encourage “belly breathing” while working with the solar plexus and stomach hinting at its affinity for the digestive tract. A simultaneous pulling upward of the mouth corners creeps in with an urge to smile. A gentle stimulation continues to pulse through, starting from the solar plexus area then radiating outward to the arms and fingertips showing its centering-and-outward energy (versus lower intestines and downward). Pulsing is felt on the forehead over the outer eyebrows after a few minutes pass and eyesight is clearer, lights brighter. It is first excitable to the body, then calming over time showing how it is a classic “stimulating but relaxing” botanical. Basil “stirs the pot” then slowly settles in to continue its influence.
Aromatic Personality of Sweet Basil Essential Oil
Sweet basil essential oil covers you with a sweet, herbaceous blanket of heat. There is a faint layer of floral on a backdrop of spice. A near immediate, instinctual smile is brought forth by basil’s potent magic. There is a cleansing quality, mind-opening stillness—calm waters settle in as the heat and stimulation settle down. There are notes of lemongrass, lavender and lilac among the dry smoky embers—snake eyes—the energy is bristling, lying in wait. Mint comes forth from the spice as well. The dry down continues with a grassy, herbaceous quality and whispers of clove whilst its temperature changes and starts to cool the nose and entire body. This oil certainly shapeshifts from penetrating warmth to a cooling sigh—the polarization is apparent if time is taken to sit with the oil.
Aromatherapy Recipes with Basil Essential Oil
Dispel and Uplift: Two Ideas for Stock Blends
Basil has inspired many a poet; may the words of Michael Drayton stir you to call upon the joy of basil to uplift your spirits: “With Basil then I will begin, whose scent is wondrous pleasing.” Consider creating and using the following synergy to help modulate your mood and quiet the mind so you may focus inward.
- 35 drops Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum ct linalool)
- 50 drops Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
- 15 drops Geranium (Pelargonium x asperum)
- 30 drops Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Are you looking for a little “pep” during the day? Instead of reaching for caffeine try spending a few minutes breathing in the fresh, clarifying and uplifting molecules of the following cephalic blend of essential oils.
- 30 drops Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum ct linalool)
- 70 drops Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)
- 30 drops Rosemary verbenone (Rosmarinus officinalis ct verbenone)
- 8 to 10 drops Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)
How to use either synergy: Add 25-30 drops to blank personal inhaler. Add 10-15 drops in water diffuser, or 2ml in nebulizing diffuser. (Note: Bergamot is photosensitizing for many people—take caution if considering this synergy for topical application.)
Managing Stress and Discomfort with a Simple Body Oil
- 8 drops Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum ct linalool)
- 12 drops Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
- 5 drops Clary sage (Salvia sclarea)
- 5 drops Sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana)
- 8 drops Black pepper* (Piper nigrum)
*Swap out Black Pepper for 2 to 3 drops of Sweet Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce) for an even more supportive blend to help modulate premenstrual and menstrual discomfort.
How to make: Combine the essential oils into a 2-ounce bottle with a top (e.g., flip top or a dropper) of your choice. Swish the oils around to combine them. Add a base oil of your choice to the bottle such as sesame, sunflower or herbal infused oil such as arnica. Affix the top and shake to incorporate the essential oils into the fixed oil. Label the bottle with a special name, ingredients and the date.
Usage suggestion: Use daily, for 5 days, as a body oil when feeling overwhelmed and in need of support and brightening. If looking to address menstrual pain and discomfort, apply up to 3x daily onto your abdomen at the onset of pre-menstrual symptoms through the first days of menses.
Parting Thoughts on Basil Essential Oil
Holistic aromatherapy looks to hone-in on the underlying cause whilst helping an individual manage their symptoms and support their body in its natural healing processes. Within this framework we may look to diet and nutrition to support an individual in their healing process. What a better way to deliver some of the properties of Basil to someone than eating the actual fresh herb? Basil lessens the acidic effects that tomatoes may have on our bodies, yet another compelling reason for including fresh and dried herbs like basil in our diets (Gladstar, 2001). Check out some of the recipe ideas from Herb Society of America—basil is just not about Caprese salads and pesto!
Thank you for spending time with Sweet Basil and me.
Battaglia, Salvatore (2003). The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy Second Edition.
Arthur O. Tucker, T. D. (2000). The Big Book of Herbs. Loveland: Interweave Press.
Gladstar, R. (2001). Family Herbal: A Guide to Living Life with Energy, Health and Vitality. North Adams: Storey Books.
Mailhebiau, P. (1995). Portraits in Oils. Editions Jakin.
Meyers, M. (2003). Basil: An Herb Society of America Guide. Retrieved from Herb Society of America: https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/c2cd2efa-f150-4aac-9c7b-f10a0ccaf889