A Pot of Basil in Every Household

In Johann Prüss’ late 15th-century herbal, Ortus Sanitatis (Garden of Health), a bushy basil plant is portrayed growing in a decorative container. The book, a popular pharmacopoeia of various remedies drawn from ancient and medieval authors, was intended to be practical. The woodcuts are somewhat stylized and simple, meant to be easily identifiable to readers such as a doctor, apothecary, spice merchant, monk, or household member.

This was a manual for ready reference at a time when literacy was not common and earlier written descriptions alone were found to be inadequate. For instance, the all-important roots of the peony, used for infantile epileptic seizure, jaundice, stomach-aches, and kidney and bladder problems, are emphasized rather than its beautiful, fragrant blossoms.

At the time, basil was applied to a number of ailments, including convulsion, deafness, diarrhea and constipation, gout, impotency, colic, and nausea. So is it significant that basil was illustrated in a pot? Medieval and Renaissance art is full of plant symbolism. Or is this portrayal simply a charmingly unexpected domestic detail?

Medieval herbals ascribed healing or poisonous ‘virtues,’ the natural properties of plants. Basil is one plant of the garden full of associations, both good and bad, sometimes contradictory. And a pot of basil has a long and colorful history.

Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is an herb of the mint family Lamiaceae. It is native to parts of Asia and Africa. The name may be derived from the Greek βασιλικόν φυτόν (basilikón phutón)—royal or kingly plant. While many culinary authors and cooks consider basil the “king of herbs” for its versatility and dominance in the kitchen (particularly in Italian, Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian cuisines), it long has had royal and religious associations. Ocimum sanctum(holy basil or tulasi) is sacred in the Hindu religion, though not used much in Indian dishes. In Christianity, the herb came to be associated with the Feast of the Cross, celebrating the finding by St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, of the True Cross in a patch of basil.

Ancient Greeks believed basil must be sowed with words of abuse in order to thrive. In both Eastern and Western societies the herb has been associated with death. In ancient Egypt it was applied in embalming rituals. It is also an herb much connected with love and fertility rites, and has been seen as a source of erotic powers. Or, conversely, a sprig of basil would whither in the hands of the impure.

In late Medieval and Renaissance Italy, basil in a pot was a sexy thing: on a windowsill alerts a lover that the lady of the house is available to be entertained. Or, in some accounts, such as in the early 15th-century risqué tales of Sienese Gentile Sermini, its sudden removal was the signal it was safe to come on in. Apparently in some parts of present-day Southern Italy, a family notes the presence of an eligible, virginal daughter by a basil pot in the window.

The Latin basiliskmeans dragon, mythical deadly reptile or serpent, sprouting legends of basil with scorpions. The arachnid with the venomous stinger was said to be bred out of mishandling the cultivated species of Ocimum. Scorpions were believed to favor hiding under a pot of basil, or that a spring of basil under a pot would turn into a scorpion. The Smithsonian’s Floyd W. Shockley, Collections Manager (and scorpion expert) in the Department of Entomology of the National Museum of Natural History, points out that the cool dark underside of the pot is a natural place for scorpions to rest, accounting for their presence and not a particular attraction to the basil.

In the pharmacopoeia on herbal medicine from the surviving writings of the ancient Greek physician and botanist Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, basil is prescribed for application to bites of the sea dragon or stings of the scorpion. Dr. Shockley notes there is some evidence that basil is effective in soothing scorpion stings and that the essential oil in the plant is anti-inflammatory and has pain-relieving enzymes. The plant would work to soothe the bites and stings of many arthropods, but ancient medicinal practitioners really focused on the scorpion relief aspect. Dioscorides observed that Africans would ingest the herb as a preventive measure against the pain of a sting. John Gerard in his famous 16th-century herbal repeated this belief but reported that, as did the 2nd-century physician Galen, basil should not be eaten.

Gerard in the Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes of 1597, declared “The smell of Basil is good for the heart … it taketh away sorrowfulnesse which commeth of melancholy and maketh a man merry and glad.” Nicholas Culpeper in the 17th century wrote: “And away to Dr. Reason went I, who told me it was an herb of Mars, and under the scorpion, and, perhaps therefore called basilican, and it is no marvel if it carry a kind of virulent quality with it.” And, noting the differing portrayals of the plant: “This is the herb which all authors are together by the ears about and rail at one another (like lawyers).”

Much of ancient plant folklore was dismissed by Pier Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577) in his commentaries on Dioscorides, Di Pedacio Dioscoride Anazarbeo Libri cinque Della historia, et materia medicinale. The work first appeared in 1544, with illustrations in the 1554 edition, and became the most influential Italian herbal of the 16th century.

A medical doctor and botanist, born in Siena, the perennially grumpy Mattioli provides the delightful contemporary observation that basil was found to be growing in every Italian household, often in a pot placed by a window or in the garden. However, the finely cut illustrations in his herbal are without any whimsy such as a container. Likewise, Leonhart Fuchs’ splendid De Historia Stirpium (1542) notes this domestic element and illustrates different types of basil, including the roots, leaves, stems, and flowers. These publications are products of the Renaissance, knowledge drawn from direct observation and not legend, although much of the texts still rely on Dioscorides.

Fuchs wrote that ozimumis Greek for fragrant. Basil has highly aromatic leaves and placed in a pot would serve to sweeten the air. Royal apothecary and botanist John Parkinson in Paradisi is Sole Paradisus Terrestris(1629) wrote that basil was sometimes used in nosegays and made “sweet or washing waters.” (Boston Public Library copy). In the home, the herb acted to keep flies out. Basil is, of course, sensitive to cold temperatures and planted (in Northern Europe) in a container would allow for easy moving to a warm shelter.

There are surviving examples of actual 15th-century basil pots, known as alfabeguer (derived from the Arabic word for sweet basil). These decorative containers were imported from Valencia, supplying a demand for this luxury item throughout Europe. In the Rothschild collection at Waddesdon Manor is a beautiful one, decorated in lustre and blue, dating from 1440 to 1470.



There is an earlier recording of basil pots used as decoration or furnishing in a home, and readers of Prüss’ herbals may have picked up on the allusion. In Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron (Day IV, Novella 5) of approximately 1353, is the story of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. The lady’s three brothers murdered the lowly born Lorenzo to thwart the forbidden love between the servant and their sister. They buried the corpse in a location that came to her in a dream. Lisabetta dug up the grave, decapitated the head, and, returning home:
There she shut herself up in her room with the head, and kissed it a thousand times in every part, and wept long and bitterly over it, till she had bathed it in her tears. She then wrapped it in a piece of fine cloth, and set it in a large and beautiful pot of the sort in which marjoram or basil is planted, and covered it with earth, and therein planted some roots of the goodliest basil of Salerno, and drenched them only with her tears, or water perfumed with roses or orange-blossoms. And ‘twas her wont ever to sit beside this pot, and, all her soul one yearning, to pore upon it, as that which enshrined her Lorenzo, and when long time she had so done, she would bend over it, and weep a great while, until the basil was quite bathed in her tears.”

The basil thrived with this fertilization and watering, but the distraught Lisabetta did not: the evil brothers discovered poor Lorenzo’s head in the flowerpot and stole it away. She died from further grief.


A version of Peter Schöffer’s Ortus ([H]ortus) Sanitatis(1485) was published in 1491 by Jacob Meydenbach of Mainz. Some of the more than a thousand small illustrations were copied rather crudely from Der Gart der Gesundheit (also of 1485), which itself was based on the Latin Herbariusof 1484 (Missouri Botanical Garden copy in BHL). Although there is an occasional genre scene (such as laborers) and landscape setting sprinkled throughout these early printed herbals, most of the plants are simply shown cut off at the stem. The first of Prüss’ editions of Meydenbach’s Ortus Sanitatis, printed in Strasbourg in 1497, is the Smithsonian Libraries’ copy which has been scanned for the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

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A pot of basil: may this be symbolic or practical, whether signifying divine or earthly love, used as a culinary ingredient or insect repellent, to soothe a sad soul, or just a convenient place to store a lover’s severed head. The iconography of the image in printed books, manuscripts and paintings is yet to be fully explored. The bibliography of early printed herbals—endless editions, translations, fragments, versions, and reuse and copying of woodcuts—is a complex and difficult task to sort out. But the increasing number of scanned early herbals in the Biodiversity Heritage Library allows for easy exploration of these extremely rare works. Perhaps Prüss’ Ortus Sanitatis has a unique basil pot because of an inventive author/illustrator. The book does contain a woodcut of the human skeleton, the first appearance of one in an herbal.

Should you happen upon any, please send me your finds of illustrations of basil in a pot. Or, a picture of the herb growing in a container on your windowsill.

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The first printed herbal to have illustrations is Macer Floridus’ De Viribus Herbarum (Milan, 1482).
Di Pedacio Dioscoride Anazarbeo Libri cinque Della historia, et materia medicinale first appeared in 1544. It was soon reprinted many times in a variety of languages; there are several of these editions in the Smithsonian Libraries and many digitized versions in the Biodiversity Heritage Library (link to one here).
Blunt, Wilfrid and Sandra Raphael. The Illustrated Herbal. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994.

Ray, Anthony. “The Rothschild ‘Alfabeguer’ and Other Fifteenth-Century Spanish Lustred ‘Basil-Pots’,” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 142, no. 1167 (June 2000), pages 371-375 (link here).

Poet John Keats picked up the narrative in “Isabella or, the Pot of Basil” (1818). In turn, British painters of the 19th century, most notably by the Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt, were greatly inspired by the story.


She wrapp’d it up; and for its tomb did choose
A garden-pot, wherein she laid it by,
And cover’d it with mould, and o’er it set
Sweet Basil, which her tears kept ever wet.
And so she ever fed it with thin tears,
Whence thick, and green, and beautiful it grew,
So that it smelt more balmy than its peers
Of Basil-tufts in Florence; for it drew
Nurture besides, and life, from human fears,
From the fast mouldering head there shut from view:
So that the jewel, safely casketed,
Came forth, and in perfumed leafits spread.


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Julia Blakely is a former Rare Book Catalog Librarian at Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. She has undergraduate and master's degrees in art history from the George Washington University and a M.S., with a specialization in rare books, from Columbia University. For many years she was a lab instructor at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia (formerly at Columbia). She served as the Libraries' representative for the Smithsonian's Material Culture Forum. Julia wrote the bibliographical descriptions for An Oak Spring Flora (1997) and has worked with several other private collections.