Basil – “King of Herbs”

(Ocimum basilicum – Labiatae)

image of basil

Sweet Basil, sometimes referred to as Italian Sweet Basil, has a clove-like scent and is used in recipes for flavor and aroma, medicinal preparations, tea infusions, and perfumery (see basil essential oil). Some chew fresh basil to freshen breath, and it is also used in beauty recipes to revitalize skin and hair.

There are over 50 species of basil. The most popular and well-known is Sweet Basil, but other cultivars of basil include Cinnamon, Dark Opal, Citriodorum (“Lemon Basil”), Crispum (“Lettuce Leaf”), Purple Basil (var purpurascens), Spicy Globe, Thai, Green Ruffles, Purple Ruffles, Large Green, Piccolo, Greek Basil, Horapha (Rau Que), etc. Greek Basil is a miniature variation that has small, fine leaves and is especially compatible with growing in a container. Its leaves are great in salads and tomato sauces. Spicy Globe, another small-leaved variety, is particularly nice to place in a pot on the windowsill.

Crispum, whose leaves are very large and crinkled, has a softer flavor and works very well for pesto and pasta sauces and freezes well. Opal Basil (Purpurascens), with its dark purple foliage and scent that is not as strong as many of the other varieties, is valued for its ornamental quality and can be substituted in recipes calling for Sweet Basil. Kha Prao Tulsi Basil (Ocimum tenuifolium / sanctum), a small variety with olive and purple serrated leaves, deep purple stems and mauve pink flowers, is known as “Holy Basil” in English and Tulasi / Tulsi in Sanskrit and is considered sacred to the gods Krishna and Vishnu by Hindus.

Care and Cultivation

Basil is considered a tender annual, growing to a height between 9″ for the miniature varieties and an average of 18″ for most other varieties. Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum) can reach heights of 24″ to 36″, with a 12″ spread.

Basil is suitable for growing in all USDA hardiness zones. In tropical climates, sun-loving basil can be a perennial. The white flowers of Sweet Basil, which are attractive to bees, bloom from June to first frost.

Sow seeds in rows 12″ apart, 1/4″ deep after all danger of frost has passed (night temperatures of at least 55°F/13°C). Some suggest not covering the seeds with soil. Germination period is quick – 5 to 10 days – but plants will take about two months to mature. Thin to 8″ to 12″ apart when growth reaches 2″ to 3″ high, mulching afterward.

Basil can be started from seed indoors in the last part of winter or early spring in two week intervals to extend season (and can continue to be grown indoors if adequate light is provided – 5+ hours). Start in plug trays, or in the pots they will grow in if growing as a container plant. Avoid seed trays due to basil’s long taproot. Starter soil should be a combination of 2 parts peat-based compost to 1 part sand and 1 part regular compost. Harden off seedlings by gradually exposing them to bright sunlight and night temperatures before transplanting. Seedlings grown in plug trays transplant easily; transplant when at least 4″ tall and in spring after all danger of frost has passed (nighttime soil temperatures should be at least 60°F/16°C). Space 8″ to 12″ apart and mulch after transplanting.

Soil should be rich, well-drained, well-aerated, and well composted. Choose a sheltered spot, but one with plenty of sunshine.

If you wish to grow indoors instead of in the garden, Basil grows nicely in a pot placed on a sunny kitchen windowsill.

Water steadily, but do so in the late morning or afternoon to allow plenty of time for drying. Drip or soaker hoses work best. Fertilize twice a month with liquid fish fertilizer throughout the growing season.

Basil is a companion to tomato.

Pests and diseases include aphids, slugs, flea beetles, tomato fruitworms (aka corn earworms), Japanese beetles, whitefly, spider mites, fusarium wilt (soil-inhabiting fungus – Fusarium oxysporum), and Botrytris (a fungus that favors conditions with too much moisture and inadequate air circulation and light…avoid overcrowding). Seedlings are highly susceptible to fungal disease resulting in dead plants, which is known as damping-off.

Basil repels asparagus beetles, mites, tomato hornworms, and supposedly slows the growth of milkweed bugs. Basil is also said to repel mosquitoes and flies.

Harvest and Preservation

Basil should be harvested in the morning with a gentle hand and refrigerated promptly. Leaves and tips can be harvested when plant is established, that is when the plant has reached a height of 6″ to 8″ and has at least four sets of leaves. Always pick leaves from the top, pinching off the stems just above the third set of leaves. Pinching the tips in this way will promote new leaf growth, encouraging plants to become more bushy, and delay flowering. For the best flavor, don’t allow the plant to flower. If you do allow plants to flower and you wish to prevent them from going to seed, pinch off any developing seedheads.

There is no substitute for using basil fresh, however if you need to preserve it, you can do so by freezing or drying. If drying, you’ll want to harvest before flowering. Hang small bunches in a warm, airy place to dry. After leaves are brittle, store in a glass jar away from light and heat. Freezing is the recommended method of preserving basil as it retains more of its flavor. It has been recommended to coat both sides of each leaf with olive oil before freezing to seal in the flavor, help keep their natural green coloring, and keep the leaves from sticking to each other. Alternatively, purée the leaves with olive oil (or make pesto) and place in an ice cube tray to freeze. Once frozen, remove the cubes and place in a freezer bag and return to freezer.

Collect the seeds of plants that have flowered to be used for future plantings.

Culinary and Other Uses

Sweet Basil has an anise, clove-like flavor. If cooking, it should be added at the very end as the flavor increases with cooking and can become overwhelming.

Popular uses of basil include as a seasoning for soups, rice, salads, sauces (especially tomato, pasta, pesto (pistou in French), pizza), ragouts, vegetables (beans, sweet peppers, zucchini, eggplant), casseroles, meat, poultry, fish and seafood, omelettes and other egg dishes, and stuffings for duck. Commonly found in Mediterranean / Italian dishes. Sweet Basil is especially complimentary to tomatoes and garlic. Lemon Basil is terrific with fish and chicken, as well as in vinegars and jellies.

To try: Wrap tomato slices with basil in foil packet and grill for 15 minutes.

For a nice touch, place vases of basil on the table for dinner guests.

Judith Benn Hurley in “the Good Herb” suggests adding about 3 T of fresh basil to a mug and using a pestle to bruise the leaves and release the oils. Add boiling water and cover, letting the “tea” steep for about twenty minutes until it’s a clear grass-green. Strain and discard leaves. Once cool, use the “tea” as a facial splash, allowing it to dry naturally on the face before applying moisturizer.

Recipes and Ideas

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