Basil In a Renaissance Garden

In my life journey through the world of herbs I have always been fascinated with the history behind the plants we grow today. In recent weeks I have been renewing my interest in this aspect of herbs and decided for this post to give you a taste of the delights to be found in old books on herbs. In my digging about I came across the following excerpt from The Herbal or General History of Plants, by John Gerard, published in 1633, London, England.

Gerard’s book was – for its time – a runaway bestseller. No other book before or for centuries after had endeavored (or indeed succeeded) in being such a comprehensive encyclopedia of plants. This was a time in world history that the discovery of new plants and deeper understanding of known plants was the impetus to many economic ventures. Many of the voyages of discovery were funded at least in part by speculators looking for the next big thing from the plant world. And no wonder when you consider that plants from the New World and sub-Sahara Africa had radically expanded and altered the food and medicine plants used in Europe.

 To give you a taste of The Great Herbal (as it was affectionately known) I have copied the chapter on basil. The spelling and grammar have been accurately reproduced. If you have trouble reading it, try saying it out loud. This book was written before spelling was codified by the creation of the first dictionaries so many authors wrote words phonetically. Periodically throughout the text you will see [my comments in brackets like this] which I hope you will find helpful.


Chapter 222 – Of Basill

1. Garden Basill is of two sorts, differing one from another in bignesse. The first hath broad, thicke, and fat leaves, of a pleasant sweet smell, and of which some one here and there are of a black reddish colour, somewhat snipped about the edges, not unlike the leaves of French Mercurie [known today as Mercurialis annua] . The stalke groweth to the height of halfe a cubite [a cubit is about 18 inches], dividing it self in to divers branches, whereupon doe stand small and base floures sometimes whitish, and often tending to a darke purple. The root is threddie, and dieth at the approach of Winter.

2. The middle Basill is very like unto the former, but it is altogether lesser. The whole plant is of a most odoriferous smell, not unlike the smell of a Limon, or citron, [the citron is the original citrus tree, the progenitor of all citrus we enjoy today] whereof it tooke his surname.

3. Bush Basill, or fine Basill, is a low and base plant, having a threddie root, from which rise up many small and tender stalks, branched into divers armes or boughs; whereupon are placed many little leaves, lesser than those of Pennie Royall. The whole plant is of a most pleasing sweete smell.

4. This which some call Ocimum Indicum, or rather (as Camerarius saith) Hispanicum, sends up a stalk a foot or more high, foure square, and of a purple colour, set at each joint with two leaves, and out of their bosomes come little branches: the largest leaves are some two inches broad, and some three long; growing upon long stalks and deepely cut in about the edges, being also thicke, fat and juicie, and either of a darke purple colour, or else spotted with more or lesse such coloured spots. The tops of the branches end in spokie tufts of white floures with purple veines running alongst them. The seede is contained in such seed vessels as that of the other Basils, and is round, blacke and large. The plant perishes every yeare [meaning it is an annual] as soone as it hath perfected the seed. Clusius calls this Ocimum Indicum.

The Place

Basil is sowne in gardens, and in earthen pots. It commeth up quickly, and loveth little moisture except in the middle of the day; otherwise if it be sowne in rainie weather, the seed will putrifie, and grow into a jellie or slime, and come to nothing.

The Time

Basill floureth in June and July [remember this was written in England], and that by little and little, whereby it is long a flouring, beginning first at the top.

The Temperatures

[Temperatures here does not refer to the air or soil temperature preferred by the plant but to basil’s use in the Doctrine of Humours] Basill, as Galen teacheth [Galen was a second century naturalist who developed the Doctrine of Humours] , is hot in the second degree, but it hath adjoined with it a superfluous moisture, by reason whereof he doth not like that it should be taken inwardly; but being applied outwardly, it is good to digest or distribute, and to concoct. [This discussion of “hot in the second degree” and the contradiction excess of moisture means that basil was regarded as a sanguine herb best used medicinally to counteract a melancholy humour. Note the references to melancholy in the uses of basil under The Vertures.]

The Vertues

[Here is the meat of the chapter for the seventeenth century reader – how basil could be used to deal with medical conditions. Vertue here refers to its physical benefits, not any moral attributes.]

A. Dioscorides [first century Greek doctor and author of Materia Medica, a medical handbook still used as late as the nineteenth century] saith that if Basil be much eaten, it dulleth the sight, it mollifieth the belly, breedeth winde, provoketh urine, drieth up milke, and is of a hard digestion.

B. The juice mixed with fine meale of parched Barly, oile of roses and Vineger, is good against inflammations, and the stinging of venomous beasts.

C. The juice drunke in wine of Chios or strong Sacke, is good against head ache.

D. The juice clenseth away the dimmenesse of the eyes, and drieth up the humour that falleth into them.

E. The seede drunke is a remedie for melancholicke people, for those that are short winded [ probably asthmatic], and them that can hardly make water [urinate].

F. If the same be snift up in the nose, it causeth often neesing [sneezing, which was believed to expel negative humours and in some cases evil spirits]: also the herbe it selfe doth the same.

G. There be that shunne Basill and will not eat thereof, because that if it be chewed and laid in the Sun, it ingendreth wormes.

H. They of Africke do also affirme, that they who are stung of the Scorpion and have eaten of it, shall feele no paine at all.

I. The Later writers, among whom Simeon Zethy is one, doe teach, that the smell of Basill is good for the heart and for the head. That the seede cureth the infirmities of the heart, taketh away sorrowfulnesse which commeth of melancholy, and maketh a man merry and glad.


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