Thursday, 14 April 2016

Tulasi… or Holy Basil

One of our close friends has gifted us, at different times, with two interesting Asian plants. My first reaction was that these plants would be wonderful ‘little’ additions to our Malaysian-style food garden… I stress the word ‘little’! There is an irony in the fact that both plants, clearly in love with our residential micro-climate, have become rampant nuisances. I hesitate to use the word ‘pests’ because both are clearly beneficial: they simply require strict management… like naughty children.

Some weeks back, I posted about the Pea Eggplant, which has required major surgery to prevent it over-running its corner of the yard. This week, I am writing about one of Asia’s most revered plants, the Holy Basil, otherwise known as tulsi for Hindu people, and as tulasi in Malaysia. The scientific nomenclature of this fascinating plant is Ocimum tenuiflorum.

When we were first given this beautifully fragrant little plant, I did my reading before planting. Many sources claimed that it would grow to perhaps 60 centimetres in height. However, there was one photograph of an Indian tulsi plant in Wikipedia which showed a rather larger specimen. Despite the pictorial clue, our baby tulasi went into the ground, next to our prized Maha Chanok seedling mango. As the tulasi grew, I treated it like lemon basil and horapha, the other Thai basil plant, simply removing the flower heads as they appeared: of course, some were missed and set seed. The tulasi continued to grow… and grow… and grow. It was thriving in our garden, reaching up over two metres and with an equivalent spread.

The poor Maha Chanok… it has had a struggle to succeed. First, overrun by a raging tulasi plant which reached more than two metres within a two-year period, then subsequently muscled out by the flourishing Pea Eggplant.

Our decision was easy, although the removal of a healthy plant is always regrettable. The tulasi plant had to go: it had become too large for its station. Out it came. Shortly after its removal, literally hundreds of little tulasi seedlings popped up in the vicinity of the original plant… and where I carried the tulasi branches along pathways to our green bin, it liberated its tiny seeds from dried flower heads as they brushed against the walls of the home, against other plants and against the timber retaining wall. Soon, baby tulasi plants appeared along the trail, in our crushed stone pathways and in neighbouring garden beds.

Flowers of the tulasi plant

This was two years ago… I know, my dear readers, what you are all thinking. Plant revenge! How could I take secateurs, saw and shovel to one of the most revered plants in Asia?

Over the past month, I have still been removing them, potting up ten adventitious, little tulasi plants. Do you think my friends will want them?

I did keep one seedling plant when the original plant was dug out. It was potted, again growing quickly, lankily and woodily. It was potted on. One metre high, with woody stems and with leaves only on the top-most parts, I sought out some buds, pruning it heavily just above these. Halved in height, the tulasi has finally begun to look rather beautiful in its glazed blue pot. It has produced attractive, fragrant new growth, sitting proudly in a dappled shade position near our kitchen with its herbal friends and a kaffir lime tree. It is fed either with pelletised chicken manure or fish emulsion on a fortnightly basis.

The lessons have been learned with this wonderful plant. Prune it hard. Remove the flowers stems as they appear. Feed it well.

Tulasi will produce many flowering stems. Remove these to keep the plant compact.

So, why is this plant so revered overseas? Put simply, for Hindu people, it is religiously significant, the plant being equated with ‘an elixir of life’. From its origins in India, the plant has been carried along the Asian trade routes into other Southeast Asian countries, its reputation for healing, health-giving and for promoting longevity carried with it. For information on the perceived health benefits of tulasi, please go to this Malaysian blog

Importantly, the evergreen Tulasi or Holy Basil should not be confused with Thai Basil (O. basilicum var. thyrsiflora), which is a much smaller plant. In the Sydney climate, the latter will need to be replanted every spring.

Tulasi or Holy Basil

Selasih or Thai Basil

Wishing you hours of enjoyment and contentment in your garden…

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