Even though 2017 isn’t over yet — and it’s been a pretty big year already — I know I’ll remember it as the year I met tulsi.
I was introduced to this mesmerizing plant through the yearlong monthly herbal medicine class I’m taking with a clinical herbalist and teacher here in West Philly, Kelly McCarthy of Attic Apothecary.
I meet with her and around 15 other students one full Sunday per month at historic Bartram’s Garden, where we also maintain raised beds and learn to grow herbs from wilderness gardener (and herbalist) Mandy Katz from seed to harvest.
I think it was the second class, sitting outside with our notebooks on a balmy day this April when we studied the nervous system. We learned about adaptogens, plants that contain compounds that can help the body and mind deal with stress.
There are several, like ashwagandha root, as well as some fungi, like prized reishi mushrooms. But tulsi — also known as holy basil — piqued my interest, since I already dry and brew my own blend of culinary basil varieties for tea.
Kelly has said that if she could recommend one herb to everyone, it would be tulsi — that if everyone just got their daily dose of heady, stress-relieving tea, we’d all feel a little better.
And after taking it daily as a tea made from the dried herb (purchased through Mountain Rose herbs), I have to agree with her: during difficult, stressful times, my regular tulsi habit did seem to help make life a little brighter, a little easier to deal with.
However, tea made from dried tulsi, while pleasant to drink, is somewhat unremarkable: dark in color, earthy and tannic, and only slightly reminiscent of the pungent, bubblegum-sweet essence of the fresh herb.
It wasn’t until I was regularly harvesting it from my garden this summer that I really got to know this herb — and I had to learn to remake my daily tea all over again.
The first time I tried to make fresh tulsi tea, I had just picked an armload of the plant’s fragrant flowering tops from the patch in my front yard. Before laying it out to begin the drying process, I boiled water and threw several sprigs into a 24-ounce glass jar, then muddled with a spoon to bruise the leaves a bit. I poured the water, covered it (to help keep the volatile oils, which would otherwise escape with the steam, in the jar), and waited 15 minutes or so.
While the tea was tasty, its color was pale and its flavor was rather faint — not exactly the heady experience I’d heard my teacher rhapsodize about. I was missing something.
The next day when I went to make my daily tea, I grabbed another handful of that same batch of fresh tulsi, now laying limp on the counter where I’d left it the day before.
I followed the same steps — boil, pour, steep, sip — but this time, the tea was transformed: it was darker in color now, like white wine, with zestier flavor and more powerful aroma than the last batch. Breathing in over my glass, it felt like I was inhaling the herb’s promised vitality.
The difference? That wilting step. Basic online research hasn’t turned up the answer to why a plant’s essence is more available to infuse after a day or so off the plant — maybe the leaves’ cell walls relax and give up their goodness more easily? — but I’m sold on this method. I want to try it with other fresh tea herbs from my garden before the season is over to see how wilting affects the flavor.
Your best bet for finding fresh tulsi is to grow it yourself and harvest the tops (four to six inches of each spring) every few days — it will grow tiny purple flowers and flourish in the heat. Failing that, ask around at your farmers’ market, Whole Foods, or area Indian grocery for holy basil, a.k.a. Ocimum sanctum (rama variety, which you see in the photo, is the most common).
And if you can only get your hands on dried tulsi, it’s still worth trying out as a tasty everyday tonic. In addition to stress, this antioxidant herb is recommended by herbalists to help with depression, anxiety, inflammation and immunity-building, appetite stimulation, and even as a pre-treatment for potential oxidative damage, like sunburn.
Take a look at my “fresh” tulsi tea recipe below. And if tulsi’s not your thing (or you can’t find it where you are), try it out with other leafy tea herbs from the garden, like lemon balm, mint, or anise hyssop — all great medicinal and culinary herbs.
- Four to six sprigs of fresh tulsi (or swap out tulsi for fresh mint, lemon balm, anise hyssop, or another tea herb)
- One quart of water
- Lay out tulsi sprigs and leaves in a single layer on a clean dish towel or drying rack. Allow to sit for one full day to wilt.
- Once the herb is wilted, heat water to 190 degrees F or just below boiling.
- Place the wilted tulsi in a quart canning jar. Pour the hot water over the herbs. Cover the jar with a lid or plate to capture the volatile oils.
- Steep at least 15 minutes.
- Strain if desired and drink, or cool further, pour over ice, and enjoy.