Where Does Basil Come From? (Basil History Explained)

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Where Does Basil Come From

Have you ever looked at your beautiful herb garden or fresh plate of food and wondered where these delicious leafy greens came from? 

In this article, we will cover all things basil, including where it originated, what it is known for, how it is used, and where it is most commonly raised today. 

Where Does Basil Come From Originally?

basil varieties

Basil originates from Asia, though the exact point of origin is up for debate. 

Many scholars believe that basil comes from India. Still, records from 807 A.D. lead other researchers to think that sweet basil was already being cultivated and used in the Hunan region of China, making China its origin country. 

When people learned that basil does well even when planted indoors, it began to migrate the globe, moving westward to Europe and Africa and eventually reaching North and South America. 

Because of the herb’s spread worldwide, different regions of people have cultivated the herb differently. This produced new varieties of the plant, and there are now an estimated 150 species of basil. Most are cultivars of O. basilicum, otherwise known as sweet basil. 

Sweet Basil is the original and most popular type of basil. Other options include Lettuce basil, bush basil, Genovese basil, dark opal basil, lemon basil, lime basil, licorice basil, French basil, Egyptian basil, cinnamon basil, red basil, holy basil, American basil, red Rubin basil, Thai basil, spice globe basil, blue spice basil, fino Verde basil, purple ruffles basil, and greek basil. 

In Italy and most of Europe, sweet basil is the staple, used for soups, salads, pasta, pesto, etc. Genovese pasta is Europe’s second choice, used to make sauces, pestos, and seasonings. In Asian cuisine, you’re more likely to find the peppery and spicy varieties of Thai basil, lemon basil, and holy basil.  In Northeast Africa, lemon basil and African blue basil are the most popular. 

Is Basil Native to Italy?

farmlands

Contrary to popular belief, basil is not native to Italy. Basil was not introduced to Mediterranean countries until about 4,000 years ago, during the Spice Trade. Some believe that Alexander the Great was the first to introduce basil to Greece around 350 BC. From there, it was rumored to have spread to the rest of the Mediterranean region. 

While basil doesn’t originate in Italy, it does play a large part in Italian and Mediterranean culture. Most often, basil is mixed with pine nuts, olive oil, and parmesan cheese to create pesto. Basil grows easily in Italy, too, especially in the country’s lower elevations and southern region. It is known as a symbol of love; today, Italians believe that basil helps penichella, the post-lunch nap that many modern Italians still enjoy on warm summer afternoons. 

Where Does Basil Grow Wild?

Basil can grow wild in almost all tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world. 

It is native to Asia, so it naturally thrives in the countries of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Iran, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore.

Basil can grow in other regions of the world, though as a non-native species. You can find it in Central and South America, and in the middle of Africa, close to the equator. 

Where is Basil Grown the Most?

vertical farm

While the United States has seldom been associated with basil, in this article and elsewhere, it is the largest producer and importer of basil. 

The countries of France, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia, Greece, Morocco, and Israel are some of the following largest cultivars. 

Golden Basil, a 50-acre Hawaiian farm, produces over 5,000 pounds of sweet basil and Thai basil every single day. To put that into perspective, it takes 23 cups of basil to create a single pound. 

However, Jones Food Company in Europe is the world’s largest vertical farm, and it produces basil. Vertical farms can grow up to seventeen layers of basil at a time over nearly 150,000 square feet, making this method super space-efficient. This practice also implements 95% less water and 100% fewer pesticides. One added bonus of how compact this farming method is, is that the food can be grown in urban areas, so significantly less transportation is needed for basil and other produce to reach the consumers. 

What is the History of Basil?

In Greek, basil, or basileus, meant “king” or “royal.” Even today, basil is referred to as “King of the Herbs.” Additionally, Greeks used the word basilisk to describe a Greek, fire-breathing dragon. According to an old Roman legend, the leaves of a basil plant were the anti-venom cure for the venom of a bite of the basilisk. Greeks would also use basil for mourning ceremonies because of its royal properties. 

In England in the 1600s, English frequently hung basil in doorways to ward off unwanted guests, ranging from pesky house flies all the way to evil spirits. 

In Italy, basil was (and still is) the sign of love. A woman who placed a pot of basil on her balcony symbolized that she was anticipating a suitor to arrive. An Italian man would also carry a sprig of basil to make his lady fall in love with him. It is also an Italian tradition that an Italian man wearing a sprig of basil would do so to show his willingness to date with intention and seriousness. 

In ancient Egypt, Egyptians used basil for embalming and preserving loved ones. 

In India, Hindu people would bury their loved ones with basil so that they may get into heaven. This is why the Hindu cultivated species of basil is called Holy basil. Hindu people also use it for medical traditions, such as Ayurveda. 

Portuguese give whole basil plants to one another as a meaningful gift for their lovers during the holidays. 

Jewish folklore often cited basil for its ability to give strength during periods of fasting. 

Nowadays, basil is used for various dishes and medicinally and cosmetically. 

Basil is added to oils, lotions, soaps, shampoos, conditioners, and perfumes. It is highly aromatic, desirable, and suitable for skin and hair. Recent studies show that basil contains compounds that contain antioxidant, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties.

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