India's Holy Basil
Tulsi is identified by botanists primarily as Ocimum sanctum (Rama and Krishna Tulsi varieties) or more recently Ocimum tenuiflorum, and Ocimum gratissimum (Vana Tulsi variety). Belonging to the Lamiaceae/Labiatae mint family, these and other closely related species and varieties (e.g., Ocimum canum) are cousins of the familiar sweet basil cooking herb Ocimum basilicum. In parts of India, all of the basils are honoured as Tulsi.
Basils are native to tropical Asia, likely having originated in India. Robust Tulsi varieties readily grow wild in many areas of Asia and Africa.
Tulsi is a bushy perennial shrub, usually cultivated annually from seed, although it can also be propagated from tip or root cuttings. It is usually planted (or transplanted) immediately after the rainy season ends. In good soil and hot sunny weather, Tulsi may grow to a meter or more in height and be ready for harvest in a few months. Much larger specimens have been noted and under special circumstances an individual plant may live for a decade or more.
Leaf color ranges from light green (Vana) to dark purple (Krishna); the tiny flowers range from white to reddish purple. Highly aromatic, different varieties of Tulsi may smell and taste of peppermint, cloves, licorice or lemon, as well as having distinct characteristics of their own.
The leaves of Tulsi are most commonly used for their health benefits, although all parts of the plant, including the roots, stems, flowers and seeds, have significant and differing medicinal and religious symbolic properties. Tulsi beads, made from the woody stalks, are commonly strung in necklaces, bracelets, belts, and meditation malas or rosaries, which are believed by many to have spiritual as well as physical protection benefits.