Tulsi, sometimes called holy basil, is one of the most fragrant, beautiful plants in my garden and I love growing it. Just walking by it with the hose and giving it some water releases its aroma into the air and you can smell it throughout the whole yard! Honeybees and native bees love it and I do too – it’s one of the best tasting herbs I know. Therapeutically, tulsi is classified as a mild adaptogen and can help build our resilience against a variety of stressors. As a neuroprotective and nootropic, it’s a fabulous herb for our brains and nervous systems. It’s really easy to grow, doesn’t require much space, and can even be grown in containers.
There are several kinds of tulsi – Ocimum tenuiflorum (sometimes referred to as O. sanctum; Krishna, Amrita, and Rama tulsi plants fall under this species), Ocimum gratissimum (Vana tulsi), and Ocimum sp. (Kapoor or temperate tulsi). In general, they are all grown as annuals outside of the tropical growing zones.
All of the tulsi species can be grown from seed or can be planted as purchased starts. The Kapoor (temperate) tulsi seeds seem to germinate faster and more readily than the others and the plants are ready to harvest sooner, so the majority of the tulsi plants in my own garden are this species. Tulsi plants are frost-sensitive, though they may live past the first couple of frosts, depending on your growing zone, the species you’re growing, and the severity of your first frosts. Plant them out in the garden around the time when you plant your other basils and tomatoes (after your last spring frost has passed). They’ll appreciate healthy, well-fed, well-draining soil and consistent watering throughout the season and can be spaced between 1′ (temperate tulsi) to 2-3′ (the more tropical species) apart. I’ve found that they grow happily in full sun and in areas that receive partial shade throughout the day.
As mint family (Lamiaceae) plants, tulsi plants can be encouraged to continue branching out and growing larger and bushier by regularly pinching out their center stems. Begin pinching them when they are at least 6″ tall. In every place where you pinch the plant, it will produce two new stems from the little nodes that are located on either side of the center stem, so as you keep pinching, your plant will keep doubling its production.
Throughout the growing season, your pinching will delay seed-set and prolong your harvests. To harvest for apothecary use, you can cut the plants back as far as 6-10″ above the ground several times and you can include your pinched-off harvests in your drying racks as well.
As the season progresses, pinching will eventually involve harvesting full-sized flower spikes. I have dried these for use in the apothecary with success (the leaves are better) but my favorite way to work with them is to rinse them and place them in a pitcher of water in the fridge that I’ll use to refill my water bottle. The pinched tips and flower spikes lend a delicious, spicy-sweet flavor to the water. Dried tulsi makes the best tea, but fresh tulsi makes wonderful, uplifting infused water to enjoy throughout the day.
When the fall season begins, allow one of your plants to set seed so you can collect seeds for your garden for the next year. The seeds are easy to gather – just harvest the dried flower spikes and shake them out upside down in a paper bag. The seeds will fall right into your bag and you can store them there or move them to a jar or envelope. Don’t forget to label them with the species and the date/year of harvest.
Have you ever worked with or grown tulsi? What is your favorite way to work with it?