Basil, whether you pronounce it “bah-zil” or “bay-sil”, Ocimum Basilicum is the most well-known of all herbs. If only one plant made an herb garden, this annual would be the choice. Whether you start this plant from seed on a sunny windowsill in February or March or wait until luxurious-looking plants are available at your favorite nursery, basil, in its several varieties, is recognized worldwide as an herb par excellence.
Varieties are often named after their scent or physical characteristics. Leaves of this herb range in colors from dark purple to pale green and may be serrated or smooth, glossy or crinkly; flowers grow in whorls ranging from white to purple. Most of the commonly available basils range in growth from one to three feet tall and one to two feet wide. It is the pungent clove-like fragrance that rises to greet you as you brush the plant which makes it a favorite of many. The most common basil is sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum).
Basil’s name is said to derive from the Greek word for “royal palace”, basileia, and was once used to make royal unguents, perfumes, and medicines. A native of India and Persia, the basil plant is sacred to both Krishna and Vishnu and cherished by all. A house surrounded by this plant is considered a blessed house. Every good Hindu goes to his rest with a basil leaf on his breast as a passport to Paradise. In Persia and Malaysia, basil is planted on graves, and in Egypt, women scatter the flowers on grave sites of loved ones. But, among the ancient Greeks, basil represented hate and misfortune, and thought the plant would not grow without railing and abuse at the time of sowing.
Basil’s medicinal uses are various. Recommended for digestive complaints, substitute that after-dinner mint with an after-dinner cup of basil tea to aid digestion and expel gas. Steep a teaspoon of the dried leaves in a cup of boiled water. Herbalists recommend this for stomach cramps, vomiting, and constipation. Basil is sometimes used to soothe mild nervous disorders and for the alleviation of wandering rheumatic pains.
The leaves of O. Viride, a native of Western Africa, are drunk as a tea to remedy fevers. The leaves of O. Canum and O. Gratissimum in India and of O. Crispum in Japan are prescribed as a remedy for colds. A tradition in Moldavia exists that a youth will love any maiden who offers him a sprig of basil. In Crete, it symbolizes “love washed with tears” and in some parts of Italy, it is a love token. To encourage the “cheerful and merry heart”, indulge in a sleep pillow containing equal portions of the clove-like basil, piney rosemary, and spicy marjoram.
Because it is an annual, basil must be replanted each year. Don’t try to get basil into the garden too early in the spring. Be patient and wait until the soil has warmed up thoroughly. It grows easily from seed but a wide variety of started plants from a nursery are usually available for a head start.
Set seedlings about two feet apart to allow room for full growth and deep watering. Mulching the bed will help conserve moisture and protect roots close to the surface from summer’s heat. Set it out in full sun, although it will do well even in partial shade. This fast-growing nose-pleaser needs plenty of room to spread out. Basil thrives on heavy watering, but make certain the soil drains well. Also, beware of too much fertilizer as it will produce lush leaves at the sacrifice of flavor. Very soon you will be able to begin pinching back the tips; this will encourage bushier new growth.
Besides the familiar Sweet Basil and its several varieties, try growing some of the less well-known basil. Lemon Basil (O. basilicum citriodorum) makes a small bush whose smaller, bright green leaves have a lemon fragrance and taste. This variety came to us from Thailand. The transplant from India where it is considered a sacred plant, Holy Basil (O. Sanctum), will not only lend its heavy scent to your potpourris, but it will act as a fixative as well. O. Kilimandscharicim, also known as Camphor basil, grows into a woody tree form and comes from Africa. It has a heavy camphor and menthol fragrance and makes an excellent moth repellant. There is also a basil with a wonderful cinnamon aroma (O. B. ‘Cinnamon’) and I’ve used its dried leaves to flavor a delightful-tasting sugar cookie. Very popular is Dark Opal Basil (O. Basilicum ‘Purprascens’) with its large glossy, ruffled purple leaves that make such a statement in the garden design; they also produce a lovely pink-colored basil vinegar. A variety much used in Asian cuisine is O. Crispum called familiarly lettuce leaf basil which comes from Japan. Check your seed catalogues and local nurseries for the wide assortment of basil varieties available. This year I discovered a variety, name not known, that has variegated green-and-white leaves and is sterile so it does not form flowers or set seed.
Basil does reasonably well as a houseplant if it is not allowed to bloom or set seed. Take Madalene Hill’s advice and take cuttings at the end of the season to root in water. Pot them up and grow them in a sunny south window over the winter. Your plants will thrive on feedings of liquid fertilizer in soil that is heavy with humus and well-draining. Smaller-leafed varieties are more inclined to succeed. Or, you may scatter a few seeds in a six-inch pot in July or August. If you find yourself with a window-sill of basil plants, continue the tradition of Renaissance England and give them as house gifts to keep the flies away.
As a companion plant in the vegetable garden, basil planted near tomatoes will help repel the white fly which attacks this tasty vegetable. But don’t place it near your rue plants in the herb garden as they are incompatible and will inhibit each other’s growth. The formation of flower heads signals the end of the plant’s lifespan. You can prolong the harvest by pinching out these buds as they form at the end of the branches.
Although it has been given different attributes according to geography, in France it is still called “l’herbe royale” for its contribution to French cuisine. Basil is also popular in the cuisines of Southeast Asia, especially Thai and Vietnamese. Besides adding its particular dash of flavor to tossed and potato salads, basil is an absolute must in all Italian cuisine such as lasagna, spaghetti, and pizza. Anything tomato-flavored is enhanced by adding basil. Try it in stewed tomatoes or a casserole of zucchini squash. Basil also complements other sun-loving vegetables besides tomatoes such as corn, eggplant, squash, and green beans.
If you find yourself with more fresh basil that you can conveniently use, try your hand at making pesto. A basic recipe consists of two cups of washed fresh basil, 3 cloves of garlic, 4 teaspoons of nuts (walnuts, pine nuts, or pecans, whatever is available), ½ cup olive oil and ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese. Pulverize everything in a blender or food processor, except the cheese which you add after your mixture becomes pasty. Then blend again. You’ll find dozens of ways to use this to enhance meals.
Fresh basil will keep well if the stems are immersed in water and stored out of direct sunlight. Don’t rinse the leaves before storing them as water tends to darken them. Sweet Basil, like other large-leaved herbs, is a problem to air-dry because they darken so easily. I pull off each leaf from the stem and spread them out on cookie sheets. Then place in an oven with the temperature set on the lowest setting, leaving the door slightly ajar. Basil will be crisp after an overnight stay and if the temperature is low enough, will remain in good condition. Even if the leaves darken, this does not affect the flavor. Smaller-leaved basil can be hung in bunches upside-down in a dark, airy place until dry.
Basil is the least satisfactory herb to freeze as it is inclined to discolor and become bitter. Layering whole leaves between salt or olive oil will turn the leaves dark, but they can be used if recipes insist on fresh basil. Basil is best stored in oil, vinegar or frozen paste. Basil preserved in oil can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a year. If you are freezing pesto, omit the garlic until you’re ready to use the sauce because the garlic may become bitter after several months of storage.
Do allow your plants to go to seed; taste and see how flavorful the seeds are. They are sometimes used as a substitute for leaves. Basil seeds are extremely viable, remaining growable for years. Eventually, cold winter temperatures will end basil’s outdoor growing season but before we mourn the loss, we’ve had a summer’s worth of enjoyment from the special touch fresh basil made in our meals. Do allow this prima-donna of herbs to reign in your garden next year.
Basil can be harvested throughout the growing season. Just remember to leave at least two leaves or a circle of leaves toward the base of each branch to assist in regrowth. Those tender tips are your first harvest. Toss them in the green salad or chop and add to the potato salad you’re planning for supper. If you are particularly ruthless, cut the plants when they are ten to twelve inches tall just above the bottom set of leaves. This will result in a burst of new growth. Just remember to cut down the plants early enough in the growing season so they will have time left to come back with vigor. This will give you a double harvest of dried leaves for winter’s use and still provide ripe seeds to save for next year’s planting.
Basil Growing Tips
Basil is an annual that needs a rich, moist, well-drained soil of pH 6.0 and full sun. The seeds should be planted 1/8 inch deep. When grown from seed, start indoors and wait until all danger of frost is past before transplanting into garden. Will grow well if some well-rotted manure or manure compost is mixed in beforehand. To encourage a bushy plant, keep cutting back branches every two or three weeks, leaving at least one node with two young shoots. Cut sprigs when flower buds form and before they have opened. Basil can be harvested until the first frost.
Fun Facts about Basil
- Basil is one of the ingredients in the liqueur Chartreuse.
- Basil reputedly brings luster to hair; the fragrance alone is invigorating.
- Add several large basil leaves to the liquid when poaching fish, shellfish, or chicken.
- Native to India, Africa, and Asia, basil is cultivated for commercial use in France.
- In Italy, basil is still a sign of love.
- Basil is a member of the mint family
- Extracts from basil seeds exhibit an antibacterial effect.