What is basil?

What is basil but a divine herb rich in sweet smelling eugenol oil; it's strongly anti-inflammatory. It is generally reckoned amongst the top twelve super foods.

If I was hard-pressed to choose a favourite herb, it would be between this beauty and garlic; parsley, turmeric and ginger might also come into the reckoning.

When I have plucked half a dozen leaves which I do every day in summer to go with our green salad, I just love to crush them in my hand; and then take deep breaths of the sweet-scented aromatic oil.

I could get high on it. It is one of those heady-fragrances that touch the pleasure centres in the brain.

"Super foods offer high levels of desirable compounds and are linked to the prevention of a disease; or are believed to offer several simultaneous health benefits beyond their nutritional value.”

Sweet basil flowers.

This page was last updated by Dr Bernard Preston on 8th February, 2024.

In the summer months when we have plenty of the herb growing in the garden, I make pesto at least once a week; it's such a simple recipe but without the preservatives, stabilizers and emulsifiers the food industry adds. You really need to finish it in a few days.

It's an annual plant, much loved by the bees too; the tiny white-flowers are equally divine smelling. I wish I could find someone who grows a couple hectares where I could take a few hives; I am sure the honey would be simply sublime.

What is basil?

Sweet basil has been used as a culinary-herb in Asia for thousands of years, known for good reason as "the king;" there are many royal reasons to use it in our cooking.

It's an annual plant that grows like a weed but it is quite fragile; once damaged, say by hail then if you live in a misty climate it is susceptible to blight. Pick the leaves only when they are still green but completely dry; no moisture or you may lose it.

It's reputed to reduce the pain of insect bites; perhaps that is why I do not really feel bee stings but I would not count on that. This week I donated blood and hardly felt the prick; perhaps it was the sweet basil that we enjoy almost daily in our green-salad!

On the subject of blood, I don't think any donors find it a pleasant experience having someone stab a needle into you and suck out a pint. I am a fainter but over the years I have learned to conquer it by eating a honey sandwich and enjoying a couple of large cups of tea before I go; and stay on the couch for ten-minutes after the phlebotomist is done.

We do it for king and country; for those children with leukaemia and others desperate for blood after trauma or surgery. You or I could be next. It's not a nice experience but one does it; would you swell the ranks of the donors? In most cities we are desperately needed.

Back to sweet basil; there are many cultivars but you probably have to take whatever is on the shelf at your garden shop.

It's the perfect herb for every summer vegetable garden.

Photograph of sweet basil plant.

So what's potting in your garden?

Growing basil

Sweet basil seedlings.

Growing basil is really simple; it shoots up like a weed. Prepare a small patch of ground, perhaps just a foot or two square. It needs some well-matured compost and it's best to break down the soil so there are no clods.

The seeds are very tiny; just sprinkle them around but not too close together and cover with some fine-soil. Then all you have to do is water, weed and start to enjoy the leaves after a few weeks. Really, it's that easy.

I recommend also growing it under the eves in pots as some years it's very susceptible to blight; try not to get the leaves wet when watering.


Pesto is divine with any salad; basil is the main ingredient.

You can enjoy your basil cooked in a soup or raw as in pesto. It's one of my favourite condiments to go with a green salad, enhancing the flavour of your lettuce and particularly tomato.

Pesto is a blend of sweet basil, pine-nuts and olive oil; and grated Parmesan cheese too. It takes no more than five minutes to rustle up a tablespoons or two; don't make too much as it does not keep and should be finished within a couple days.

Read more about the recipes for basil pesto. I particularly like to have extra virgin olive oil every day for its anti-inflammatory properties. Yes the DC and certainly all gardeners can feel it in the lower back periodically.

Kale pesto is another favourite in our family.

I love to barbecue a chicken; I always include some sweet basil in the marinade.

If you're cooking with basil, then like garlic add it at the last moment; the aromatic oil is driven off by heating it to death.

Helen always adds a half a dozen raw chopped leaves into her famous salads; each whole, unprocessed food has its virtues. Try to include at least eight different coloured fruits and salads to your diet every day; there is a 35 percent lower all-cause of death.

What is basil? Just one of the many natural ways that you can be more sure of reaching a sprightly eighty or even ninety with all your marbles intact.

Blue Zone longevity is a subject that consumes me.

Fresh basil recipes

Fresh basil recipes are dependent on the herb straight from the garden; it's not difficult to grow.

Make sure you can give an answer to the question, what is basil?

If you want sweet basil available right through the summer like we do then I would have several sowings. It's susceptible to blight in some climates and it is best in a new bed every month or two.

Sweet basil blight.

You really don't want to use leaves like these for your green salad or in the pesto. It is so easy to start a new seed-bed when you can see the plants are maturing; within weeks you will be enjoying fresh sweet basil in your cooking.

Eugenol oil

Eugenol oil is one of the known active ingredients in basil.

Sweet basil is such a wonderful culinary herb because of these many different aromatic oils. Just take a handful of leaves, crush them in your hand and take in a deep whiff. Ah, that's a lot better than sniffing glue or snorting heroin.

There is a lot of research being done on eugenol; it's used widely in dentistry and there are hopeful signs that it can reduce the nasty effects of osteoporosis. Healthy bone is continually being formed and broken down; it has been shown to prevent any over-exuberant destructive cell activity.

There is even research being done into the prevention of large intestinal tumours by eugenol. So we try to eat from a wide range of fruits, salads and herbs daily; there are tiny amounts of all these substances that we miss out on if we are still enjoying only the black and white diet.

So can you now answer the question, what is basil?


Chronic anxiety which raises cortisol levels in the blood is a huge feature of today's society. There is fascinating research showing that an extract from basil in which the active phytochemical is thought to be eugenol, lowers the serum concentration of both the stress hormones and glucose.

This is highly significant as raised cortisol is associated with tissue inflammation, a lowered metabolic rate and an abnormal immune response; of huge interest to all doctors.

Chronic stress with its associated raised serum cortisol, is almost certainly one of the underlying causes of the epidemic proportions of autoimmune diseases seen in today's world.

Researchers reporting in the medical journal Pharmazie state that an extract of holy basil, Ocimum sanctum, lowers the serum concentration of cortisol and glucose in mice[1]. What is basil is for everyone who has a stressful job; or is insulin resistant.

Have two blood tests, the haemoglobin A1c and a fasting insulin to see if you might be one of the many diabetics walking the streets undiagnosed. Investing in long-term health personally included investigating the possibility of raised blood glucose in my own wellness programme; the result was disconcerting enough to make me start walking after every starchy meal.

What is basil has important ramifications for us all.


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Bit of a bookworm too?

Perhaps you'll enjoy this stormy scene from my latest book, A Family Affair. Janet has just discovered that she is pregnant after being raped, and Santie cannot figure out why she is hesitating about having an abortion. They are in the midst of making basil pesto.

Cover of A Family Affair by Bernard Preston.

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