The word basil is taken from the Greek word Basilicum, meaning “king” or “royal”. It is a fairly small annual herb that typically grows up to 3 feet (1 meter) in height. Basil is a thick-stemmed plant with larger lush, leaves and small, delicate flowers that range in color from white to pink. The color of the Basil plant, stems and leaves can also range in color from a vibrant, radiant green to a deep, dark purple (referred to Dark Opal Basil). This remarkable variation in color can easily be attributed to decades of cross pollination, from which an extremely large number of species, varieties and forms have been born. Today, over 50 species and more than 60 varieties of Ocimum basilicum L. currently exist. This range includes Ocimum suave known as tree basil, which grows in India and Africa and can reach heights of 6 to 9 feet (2 or 3 meters). Another common form of basil is Ocimum citriodorum Vis. This form is more commonly referred to as lemon basil, because of its particularly strong lemon scent. Ocimum kilimandscharicum is yet another basil. This basil is native to the US and is commonly referred to as African blue basil or camphor basil, because of the easy to smell camphor present in the oil. Other types of basil are most easily differentiated by measuring their chemical constituents and are therefore discussed in the “Chemically Speaking” section.
Basil oil is believed to possess biologically active constituents that may be insecticidal, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial. It is believed to assist with such things as Bronchitis, asthma, colds, coughs, exhaustion, flatulence, flu, gout, insect bites, insect repellent, muscle aches, constipation, nausea, rheumatism, sinus congestion, mental clarity, steady nerves, migraines, fevers, menstrual problems and ear infections. Researchers form the Landspitali University Hospital in Reykjavik, Iceland completed a comprehensive study on the ability of basil oil to aid the body against ear infections. They were able to determine that vapors released from basil oil may actually diffuse through the eardrum, penetrating the eardrum allowing it to reach infected areas in the middle ear. The researches accomplished this by testing basil oil against a placebo, on rats. They concluded that 81 percent of the animals achieved the desired results and the infection of no longer present.
In the world of perfume making, basil is considered a top (head) note. Top notes are often the first recognizable scent that evaporates in short time. These essential oils are typically refreshing and mentally stimulating. Basil offers a clean, clear, light, peppery and sweet aroma. Middle (heart) notes are described as the main or dominant scent. These essential oils are typically flowery or spicy scents. Bottom (base) notes are the scents that remain after all other scents have evaporated. These essential oils are typically sweet and earthy scents.
Basil oil contains numerous chemical compounds, including: 1,8-cineole, alpha-pinene; alpha-terpineol, ß-pinene, camphene, camphor, cis-ocimene, citronellol, eugenol, geraniol, limonene, linalool, methyl chavicol, methyl cinnamate, myrcene, sesquiterpenes, terpinolene; terpinen-4-ol and y-terpineol. Basil oils offering the greatest benefits often contain rich levels of methyl chavicol, eugenol linalool, camphor, and methyl cinnamate. Traditionally, the highest quality basil oil has been produced in Europe, specifically in Bulgaria and in the Mediterranean region. Basil oil harvested in Europe is considered to be superior, because contains extremely high levels of linalool and methyl chavicol. Bulgarian oils are traditionally rich in methyl-cinnamate and eugenol respectively.
Sweet basil or holy basil (Ocimum sanctum L.) contains traditionally high levels of eugenol and is grown throughout Malaysia, Australia, India, and western Asia. Basil grown in Africa, the East Indies and Belgium (formerly Ocimum americanum L., currently Ocimum canum Sims.) is well known, because they also possess a high methyl-cinnamate content. Ocimum gratissimum L. is often called tree basil, because of its wood-like scent. It is native to Southeast Asia and contains a high phenol content of eugenol.
Basil oil blends well with: bergamot, black pepper, cedarwood, fennel, ginger, geranium, grapefruit, lavender, lemon, marjoram, neroli and verbena.
No precautions are known for basil (Ocimum basilicum), though some lines of basil contain methyl chavicol, which is under review as a possible carcinogen when taken in extremely high levels. Sweet basil is generally recognized as safe as a spice/natural flavoring and as a plant/oil extract (21 CFR sections 182.10, 182.20 ).