'Isfahan Tokhm Sharbati' Hoary Basil
Origin: Isfahan, Iran
Improvement status: Landrace
Seeds per packet: ~50
Germination tested 1/2022: 33% (below federal standard)
Life cycle: Annual
EFN INTRODUCTION. NEW FOR 2022. 'Isfahan Tokhm Sharbati' is a variety of hoary basil (Ocimum americanum) from the Iranian city of Isfahan. Despite the botanical name, this species is actually not from the Americas at all, but has a wide range from Africa across the southern tier of Asia. It's certainly a lesser-known basil in this country, but it's a significant crop in some places. Swahili-speaking peoples in East Africa call it "mvumbani" or "kivumbani", and use it for lowering blood pressure, treating stomach aches, or simply as a base-flavoring for tea. In Indonesia, it's known as "kemangi," and it's supposedly used in traditional Indonesian medicine to enhance sexual and reproductive health. Indonesians and other people in Southeast Asia also use it raw as a vegetable or flavoring. In Tamil Nadu (southern India), a decoction of the leaves is used to treat constipation, diabetes, dysentery, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids. It is also used as an insect repellent, especially for certain beetle pests in stored grain.
When this variety was collected in 1958 at the Isfahan bazaar, plant explorer Paulden F. Knowles of the University of California recorded that it was "Used as a beverage with sugar and water," and that it was called "Tokhm Sharbati". Based on our research, it seems clear he meant that the seeds are used as a beverage with sugar and water, much like some of us use chia seeds today. Indeed, "tokhm e-sharbati" or some variation of that, is applied almost exclusively to the basil seeds used in drinks and sweet desserts. "Basil seed drink" can be found in many Indian markets and other international markets in this country. At Mashti Malone's, the famous Persian ice cream shop in Los Angeles, basil seed and rosewater feature in a beloved flavor called "Herbal Snow Sorbet."
Incidentally, the original collector, Knowles, was not looking for basil seed during his travels. He was an oilseed guy, primarily interested in developing safflower as a crop — and the safflower industry that exists today is largely due to his work, both in breeding and in collecting seeds around the world. During that whirlwind 1958 expedition, from April 4th to September 24th, he also hit India, Pakistan, Afghanistan (twice), Iraq (twice), Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Israel and Palestine, France, Morocco, Spain, and Portugal, according to his notes. In Iraq, he visited Abu Ghraib, which housed a Plant Experiment Station long before it became the site of a prison and notorious atrocities committed by the US during the Iraq War. He visited Iran three times, and hit Isfahan sometime between July 10th and July 31st. Of the 1300 accessions he donated to the USDA — which paid for his expenses on the expedition, while the University of California paid his salary — most were safflower, but a significant number were sesame, flax, castor bean, sunflower, kenaf, lentil, chickpea, mungbean, sorghum, alliums, various brassicas, and a wide range of grasses. He brought back this hoary basil from Isfahan, and one other from Kirkuk, in Northern Iraq.
This species is shorter than most basils we grow, and it will start flowering at less than 8 inches tall, but it produces a profusion of flowers and seeds — lending credence to our belief that Knowles meant the seeds were mixed with water and sugar to make a drink, not the leaves or any other part of the plant (he probably would have said "steeped in" water and sugar if he meant that too). Pinching the tops, as with other basils, will induce even more flowering and seed production, but this variety does seem to want to bolt pretty quickly, which is likely an adaptation to the hot and dry summers of Isfahan.
These seeds were grown for us by our friend Olivia Gamber in Philadelphia. The germination rate seems to be rather low (humidity in Philadelphia isn't great for basil seed production), but you should be able to grow plenty with 50 seeds. And we wouldn't be surprised if the germination rate goes up when planted in soil and exposed to sunlight.