Originally published May 3, 1984
In Italy, basil symbolizes love. In India, where this highly aromatic herb is sacred, there is a belief that a house surrounded by basil bushes will be blessed. In France, the privilege to use basil, known as “l’herbe royale”, was once reserved only for the “basileers” or king.
Although the English weren’t the ones to put basil on a pedestal, they did plant it in pots, and in Tudor times a gift of a pot of basil was a mark of affection and respect. Englishmen liked the herb’s sweet and invigorating fragrance (“basil maketh a man merrie and glad” wrote that merriest of herbalists, Thomas Tusser) and prized it more for scent bags and nosegays than for the salad bowl or stewpot. And they found “marvelous strange” the way basil plants prospered on profanity.
A volume published in 1600 explained the phenomenon “basil groweth fairer and higher if it be sown with curses.” In France and Italy it is claimed that basil seeds wouldn’t sprout at all unless they were properly cussed out.