The Multitudinous Tulsi
Summer is the domain of the manifold. In spring, I find I can delight in every flower, the succession of blooms feels manageable, comfortable, familiar. But by midsummer in Appalachia, the flowering is so fierce, so frequent and so diverse, I simply have to throw up my hands. I will never be able to count, capture or see it all.
In summer the diversity of life simply explodes. Fed by long hours of sunlight and lush rainfall, the earth cloaks itself like mica in layer upon layer of growth. In most of the deciduous world summer is when ecological communities hit their peak population. Archeologists have shown that, in many parts of the world, human diets consisted of several hundred different plant species! In summertime, such diversity seems easy. We could wander the woods and fields and dine upon a seemingly infinite array of leaves, roots and vines.
The manifold aspect of summertime is what gives this season such spice, vigor and possibility. It is also what makes it so overwhelming at times! If you’ve ever tended a garden then you know that the most backbreaking work comes in spring and fall, but summer requires an ever-constant attention to detail. If I even miss a week of weeding, pruning or watering, the long arms of honeysuckle will have crept back into my garden, the thorns of blackberry begin to sprout beneath the surface of the soil, and the basil sneaks into flower. In summer we are asked to manage a million tiny details— seeds, fruits, flowers, waist high grass and vines. Barbeques, potlucks, river swims, play dates, road trips and making batch after batch of pesto. Like a diamond with a million facets, summer is a precious, but inherently scattering gift
Medicine works in two ways. It is both something that heals, and something that precipitates a situation in which we have no other choice but to seek healing! The manifold nature of summertime does both. It empowers and enlivens and opens possibilities. And it also drives us crazy! The most effective way to engage with the hair-rising medicine of this multitudinous season, however, is to work with the allies that truly nourish our own ever-expanding selves.
>> Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) <<
In the realm of the multitudinous, the complex and the mysterious manifold, Tulsi (or Holy Basil) reigns queen. A sacred herb of the Ayurvedic traditions, tulsi has one of the longest lists of herbal actions I’ve ever seen. It embodies so many different medicinal properties, it is considered a virtual panacea in some traditions. And as such, tulsi is a brilliant ally for helping us to integrate complexity within our own systems, expanding out into the possibility of our own manifold selves.
There are many different species and cultivars of basil in the world, and each one has its own distinctive taste, aroma and medicinal profile. Many people forget that our most basic culinary herbs are also medicines, and basil is no different. Ocimum basilicum, or what we would consider true basil, has been used since the time of ancient Egypt as an enlivening stimulant and antimicrobial. We tend to disregard such culinary herbs, but their power is so mighty they have become foundational. Different species of basil flourish throughout the temperate world, but one species from India has become the golden standard of medicinal basil— Tulsi.
It’s hard to know where to begin with tulsi, like standing in the midst of a garden grown wild with abundance. But perhaps the best place to start is in the realm of history and lore. In traditional Indian society, tulsi is revered as a holy plant – everything from the pot the plant is nestled in, to the water given to nourish its roots, is considered sacred. Tulsi is so esteemed is has come to be considered the avatar of the goddess Lakshmi and its name, which comes from the Sanskrit Tulasi, means “the incomparable one.” Tulsi has been in cultivation for over 3,000 years. Considered a rasayanic herb, Tulsi is thought to balance all the chakras (talk about balancing the multitudes), harmonize all three doshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha), and invoke higher feelings of compassion and love. Many Indian households plant tulsi right outside their door and I’ve heard of several Indian families in American who keep tulsi growing in pots inside their homes all season long. There are five common cultivars of Tulsi – Rama, Kapoor, Krishna, Vana and Amirta. Each one has a slightly different herbal profile, but all four are often used interchangeably for their medicine.
Flourishing as a perennial shrub in India, in the temperate world tulsi grows as a vigorous and self-seeding annual. I’ve known tulsi to spread itself far and wide in my garden, cropping up in flower pots and fire pits across the yard. Its multitudinous and spreading nature is a deeply indicative doctrine of signatures— in terms of medicine, it seems tulsi does it all.
To give an abbreviated list… tulsi is adaptogenic, antiseptic, anti-oxidant, anti-microbial (including anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-protozoal, anti-malarial, anthelmintic), anti-depressant, anxiolytic, carminative, diuretic, expectorant, galactagogue, immunomodulating, anti-inflammatory, hypotensive, anti-diabetic, anti-mutagenic, hypoglycemic, hypo-cholesteroemic, hepato-protective, neuro-protective, cardio-protective, anti-allergic, anti-catarrhal and radio protective (are you out of breath yet?)
So what does this all means? It means that Tulsi can help treat both depression and anxiety. It is a wonderfully enlivening remedy for the memory and mind and one of my go-to medicines for increasing concentration, studying, and helping to focus and hone my thoughts. It is helpful for the sniffles, as it is both antibacterial and antiviral (common colds are caused by a viral infection) and can be effective in addressing hay fever and allergic asthma as well. Tulsi is also considered an immunomodulator, meaning that while it has strong antibiotic effects, its overall influence is one of helping our immune system to find its perfect balance, a quality that is particularly important for those who have autoimmune conditions or hypersensitive systems. Tulsi is considered an anti-catarrhal, meaning it helps to ease coughing and has traditionally been employed to expel excess mucus in the lungs. It is a wonderfully soothing remedy for the digestion as well and can help relieve gas, indigestion, heartburn and bloating. In clinical trials, Tulsi has been shown to lower cholesterol, blood sugar levels and even help prevent the mutation of cells. This zesty basil is also a powerful nervine. I almost always carry a bottle with me whenever I travel for stress, anxiety and scattering overwhelm.
A student once asked me if I could take any herb with me to a desert island, what would it be? And the answer was easy – Tulsi! Very few herbs can boast such a long list of actions, and even fewer can claim such efficacy along with such divine tastiness and profuse growth. Tulsi truly grows like a weed, which means that I can drink fresh tulsi tea all summer long, and dry enough from just a few plants to keep myself nourished throughout the winter. Grown in the garden you can cut tulsi back two, three, sometimes four times a season, for ample yields.
Tulsi is a tonic is the truest sense of the word. It is most effective when taken over a period of time and can work wonders for your long term health when imbibed regularly. Truth be told, tulsi is the only herb I take every single day and since I’ve became a tulsi convert I rarely ever catch colds. I find my baseline level of stress has plummeted and I can start each day with a distinctive clarity of mind (a much more even-keeled and peaceful kind of focus than what I experienced when I was an intravenous coffee addict).
As such a multifarious medicine, tulsi is a powerful energetic companion for helping us to expand. When faced with such natural bounty and manifold, there is a natural tendency to get stressed and overwhelmed. Tulsi helps us to see that such complexity and bigness is an invitation to expand. The manifold of our surroundings can become manageable, encouraging and inspiring, when we can recognize and be in a serene state of communion with our own manifold selves. A shining plant of such a vibrant and peaceful nature, Tulsi asks us to embrace the bigness, the diversity, the raucous growth of our own beings. To let summertime light a million candles in the temple of our being and invite a divine litany of life.
M A N I F O L D B A S I L P E S T O
One of my favorites ways to enjoy tulsi is in combination with Genovese or sweet basil in a pesto! You can also feel free to add other types of basil, such as lime or thai, and make it a true bowl of diversity. Have fun and remember to enjoy it all.
- 1 packed cup Genovese basil (Ocimum basilicum) or other basil of choice
- 1 packed cup holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
- 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts
- 1-2 medium cloves of garlic
- Salt + pepper to taste
- Nutritional yeast or parmesan cheese to taste
Yields: 1 cup of pesto
1. Roughly chop basil.
2. Add olive oil, basil and nuts into a blender or food processor. Blend until somewhat smooth and add nuts (reserve some for garnish). Blend until nice and chunky or smooth as butter, whatever suits your fancy.
3. Once you reach desired consistently add in the nutritional yeast (or parmesan) and salt and pepper. Blend to combine.
4. Garnish with nuts and wee basil flower and serve with as many different, diverse and divine dishes as you like!
Article originally published in Plant Healer Magazine