Basil: Contrary Opinions In The Tradition

What actually is the opinion of Dioscorides? His recommendations of the commonly known plant are mainly external: the juice for dimness of sight and rheums of the eyes; the plant or its seed as an agent to provoke sneezing (the eyes must be kept shut! Dalechamps thinks they have to be pressed); as an oil, warming and sharp, applied to the vulva as an emmenogogue and abortifacient and to treat constriction; finally for bites of the sea dragon and for scorpion stings. He relates how Africans, presumably living or travelling in areas populated by many scorpions, eat the herb to remain without pain if they get stung. The indication that, applied with barley, oil of roses and vinegar, it helps inflammations may seemingly be taken to refer to conditions of the lungs – Bock, for instance, recommends it for breathing difficulties and old coughs, by clearing thick and viscid humours.

There are, however, internal uses recorded too in Dioscorides’ work: the seed taken in drink corrects an excess of black bile, difficulty in urination through a diuretic action and flatulence. Basil will encourage the production of breast milk and helps to soften the stools for easier passing, an effect perhaps linked with the idea that it is a hard food to digest. Fuchs provides other classical sources – Philistio and Plistonicus – for the treatment of constipation, colic and dysentery, and adds that it helps to reduce the intensity of symptoms.

Serapio quotes Hunayn on the view of ancient physicians that basil evinces two contrary virtues: as a laxative for expulsion from the belly and, by the testimony of Hippocrates, as an astringent to retard the bowel motions. Andreas Vesalius, cited by Bauhin, reports that some regard the herb as astringent but the juice as laxative. Ibn Sina reckons the internal consumption of basil generates turbid and melancholic blood from its superfluous humidity, whereas Dioscorides considers it a treatment for black bile. Serapio relates the views of Rufus and Hunayn that basil has a drying effect, is converted quickly to yellow bile according to the former, and useful to dry up moisture after the consumption of unripe fruits in the latter’s testimony. The Renaissance writers thus found the record on basil to be highly contrary. Fuch’s recommendation, quoted verbatim in the following century by Bauhin, was to solve the contradictions between Pliny and Dioscorides by adhering to Galen’s view that basil should be used externally only.

The herbal of Apuleius Platonicus lists two different basils: ozimum, which Fuchs derives from the Greek for ‘fragrant’, also called basilica and used for head pains, rheums in the eyes and for the kidneys; and herba basilica of three kinds, which treat poisonous bites. Further, the Salernitan herbal differentiates between ozimum, whose seeds are used, and two sorts of basilicum which have a warming and drying quality. Mattioli considers the name ocymum, from the Greek ‘ocys’ meaning ‘swift growing’ to relate to the first animal fodder to appear in spring such as green corn and vetch, and nothing to do with ocimum, the true basil. Of this he lists three kinds: those with large long, wide and thick leaves of a lemon apple scent, a smaller version named ‘non garyophyllatum’, which he matches to Dioscorides’ description, to distinguish it from the third kind with the tiniest, narrowest leaves and the strongest scent, the ‘clove’ basil, the most cordial of all, called the ‘native basil’ (basilicum gentile) by the Italians. Bock also lays claim to this last kind as that used by the German apothecaries, a medicinally useful herb in contrast to ‘Cato’s basil’, an inferior species and the one thought useless or harmful by classical writers. Mattioli’s differentiation according to leaf size is supported by modern botany.

Dodoens also differentiates three kinds, two being large and small garden varieties of a hot and moist temperament, the third a wild basil of a hotter and drier quality. Bauhin notes the contrariness of basil also in relation to how it grows. He states that it likes being watered in the middle of the day under the heat of the sun; that it sprouts sooner if hot water is poured onto newly sown seed. However, quoting Costaeus, who speculates on the feebleness of the plant, which withers if not regularly watered, Bauhin affirms that heat normally relaxes bodies and increases feebleness. If basil requires heat due to a deficiency in its essence, this is countered by its pronounced scent, which is proof that heat flourishes there. Costaeus concludes that basil instead has a laxity of substance, causing its innate heat to be easily disrupted and requiring heat to support its constant need for nourishment.

Thus the story of basil, wild or garden, large or small, until the Age of Enlightenment. With such disagreement reigning, is it any surprise, then, that basil would have easily disappeared from the herbal pharmacopoeia?

Hill in the mid-18th century mentions the Ocymum vulgare majus as better than two or three other varieties but still little used, although it deserves to be much more: the fresh tea he holds as excellent against all obstructions, ‘no simple is more effectual for gently promoting the menses and for removing complaints which naturally attend their stoppage’. This entry is copied by Robinson over a century later, although he does add uses for nausea and vomiting. It is absent in Cullen’s review of the material medica and many texts since. Wren renames basil Clinopodium hortus, a carminative occasionally used for mild nervous disorders.