All plants are made the same, yet some are elevated to “extraordinary’ by the reverence and importance given to them by culture and history. Tulsi is one such a plant. Native to India, Tulsi is Sanskrit for “incomparable one” and is also called holy or sacred basil and is believed in India to be the physical manifestation of the divine. They love it so much over there that they have 108 different names for it and it is a Hindu custom to have a pot of tulsi growing out the front of one’s home to bless all those who cross the threshold and keep evil spirits out.
India is where I came to know Tulsi
My tale of how I met her is very much how I use this plant for others. Tulsi is the soulful woman you call up when the world is looking a little grey, or you’re trying to figure out a deeper insight into a challenge. Challenges that are close to the heart and soul.
Throughout university, I took a year-long break to gain some perspective and get to know myself better beyond my identity as a student. A favourite Irish poet of mine, John O’Donohue once wrote: “when the secret is not respected, the sacred vanishes”. An eerie concept to behold when you’re waist deep in a science degree and intellectualism is the currency you’re banking on day in day out. I was forgetting about all the “secrets” of the plants, of healing, of human nature that first attracted me to studying naturopathy. The sacred was vanishing out of my life, and I was feeling dried up and yearning for something I couldn’t put my finger on.
During that time away, I travelled to many herb farms in Australia and overseas to meet the plants first hand. Amongst them was a tulsi garden, which was part of a more extensive medicinal garden of an Ayurvedic hospital in Kerala, India. For two weeks, I would rise at 4:30 am, just on sunrise, and ride a bike through a tiny bumbling town on a very bumpy road. I would spend the morning with a number of others tending to the expanse of tulsi garden beds until it became too hot to work any longer.
Tulsi as a tonic for the soul
I began to start understanding this plant and this curious land a bit better. I also began to realise a bit more of this sacredness I had been yearning for. Amidst all the chaos, the seeming hopelessness of many situations, the injustices that abound, you can have a garden, and you can pray, and you can create something that taps you into something bigger than yourself. And this is the medicinal quality tulsi imparts to us.
Like in my tale, tulsi as a herbal medicine is for those who are yearning for the sacred in their lives. Looking for that deeper river of meaning to understand the ups and downs of life. To transform pain into something new. To awaken and have the inner support to take that step onto new ground. If you find yourself yearning for mountains, temples, a retreat or any such place that makes you feel closer to that universal spiritual energy, Tulsi is a lovely way to weave that into your day-to-day.
Tulsi’s medicinal qualities
Tulsi is a what herbalist’s call an adaptogen and nervine.
It is a herb that helps us to adapt to all the stimulus in our environment. When we can adapt, and our immune systems are strong, we build resilience that allows us to thrive in an ever-changing world. Tulsi and other adaptogenic herbs have an affinity for tonifiying and strengthening the adrenals (the glands that produce all our stress hormones) and the immune system. When these glands overwork, as they so often are in these times, this plant lends a supportive hand.
Tulsi is immensely helpful for women who are feeling “wired and tired” and go for that caffeine or sugar hit in the afternoon to combat fatigue and brain fog. A cup of strong tulsi tea in the afternoon will help you curb those sugar cravings and flick a mental switch that will help you ease through the afternoon.
She is also helpful for immune systems that are struggling: chronic infections such as colds, flu, thrush or stomach bugs. Not only does it support the immune system, but the resin gives mucous a firm push along. I will often combine tulsi with specific anti-viral and anti-bacterial herbs and aromatic spices as a wintertime tonic. The warming nature of this plant is perfect for the cold stagnation of winter.
Over time, Tulsi brings about a lightness of spirit and clarity of mind, renewing your faith in yourself or a situation that may have previously felt hopeless. She is also known as a plant of compassion and peace, urging people to go beyond the mentality of “an eye for an eye”, and to see the bigger picture.
Blending Tulsi with other botanicals
Tulsi is beautiful as a tea on its own, especially during the colder months. It has a slight aromatic pungency and undertone of earthy spiciness thanks to its high resin content. After a morning of harvesting Tulsi in the gardens, my fingers would look like those of a lifelong smoker from all its sticky resin.
Some favourite combinations are:
For stress, overwork and yearning for soulfulness and meaning: Tulsi, Withania (also known as ashwagandha), rose and cardamon (as a tea or herbal extract blend).
For a delicious immune tonic: it can be made into an elixir with cinnamon, ginger, elderberries and local honey. Just fill a jar loosely with 1 part tulsi, 1 part elderberries and a couple of cinnamon sticks crushed, pour over with brandy 3/4 of the way, and fill the rest with honey. Leave in a sunny position for 2-3 weeks, then strain through muslin and bottle. Take one teaspoon a couple of times a day.
For a new take of chai: you can use tulsi instead of black tea to create a sophisticated base not. For a robust blend, combine with bay leaves, black pepper, cinnamon and ginger.
For something more delicate: combine with vanilla, star anise, cardamon, nutmeg and orange peel.
Rebecca Altman from King’s Rd Apothecary has written a wonderful post exploring more extensively Tulsi’s medicinal virtues.