Basil, Ocimum basilicum, is a culinary herb in the mint family, Lamiaceae. The name, basil, is derived from the Greek word, basileus, meaning “king”. This makes sense since basil is the “King of the Herbs”. The French sometimes call basil “l’herbe royale”, the royal herb.
Basil has been cultivated for over 5,000 years, originating in India and today there are over 160 cultivars in existence. The most common is sweet basil, the type associated with Italian cuisine. Every time I get a whiff of this fragrant herb, I immediately think of being in my Sicilian grandmother’s kitchen.
Other varieties such as Thai basil are extremely popular in Asian cuisine. This cultivar has the taste of anise (licorice), and often smells sweet with a strong pungent taste.
Basil is a leafy, fragrant HALF-HARDY annual with a bushy appearance. It is a tropical plant that loves the heat with full sun and is easy to grow. If you want basil in the cool time of the year, the best bet is to keep it in a pot and bring it into the house. Another way to enjoy basil when it’s cold is to grow Perpetuo basil, African Blue Basil or holy basil. These three types are perennials and don’t tantalize the taste buds like sweet basil but at least you can satisfy your culinary itch when it’s cold outside.
Unlike perennial herbs such as oregano, rosemary and thyme, basil likes to be kept moist and grown in rich soil. Add mulch around your basil plants to retain moisture when it’s hot.
The best tip that I can give you regarding basil is to USE IT!
When basil starts to flower, the essential oils go from the lush green leaves to the blooms to help form seeds. The plant is telling you, I’m pooping out!
Lack of water, fertilizer and disease can stress the plants and they give up easy. Once a stem produces flowers, foliage production stops on that stem and it will become woody and the essential oil production declines.
After a few weeks from transplanting, the plant should be almost a foot tall in warm conditions and it’s ready to make your first cut. With a clean sharp pair of scissors or clippers, cut the center shoot above the second set of leaves. You should see two suckers starting to develop on opposite sides of the main stem. Make your cut right above these two shoots. Now these two shoots will develop into two long stems that soon will need to be pruned again. Now you have 4 shoots, then 8, then 16, etc.etc. In this fashion your basil will be prolific and bushy. After each cutting, give the plant a shot of some high nitrogen fertilizer such as Organic Fish Emulsion w/ kelp (4-1-1) from E.B. Stone. The nitrogen will kick start your plant to resume giving you big lush leaves. Stay away from fertilizers high in phosphorus and potassium because these will tend to make you basil want to flower. Bottom line- with basil, YOU DON’T WANT FLOWERS!
If you aren’t cutting and using the leaves regularly, the plant will start to form flowers and now you are forced to pinch the flowers. Don’t let you basil get to this point. Make your cuts low and often. If pruned regularly, twelve plants can yield as much as 4-6 cups of sweet, pungent green leaves.
Bail leaves can be chopped up and placed in ice trays with water or olive oil and frozen for future use.
The best way to enjoy basil is to use it fresh in any number of delicious Italian recipes. At my house, pesto reigns supreme. You can dry basil, but I think you are missing the boat- make a caprese salad with fresh tomatoes and fresh basil from your garden.
Some say that basil planted with your tomatoes increases the flavor of your tomatoes. Double-blinded taste tests have proven this to be a myth BUT— there is nothing more fantastic on your dinner table than the flavor of both tomatoes and basil on the same plate.
Basil planted as a companion near tomatoes, peppers, oregano, asparagus and petunias can help these plants repel or distract asparagus beetles, mosquitoes, thrips and flies.
Basil is susceptible to fungal diseases such as fusarium wilt, botrytis and downy mildew. Insects such as whitefly, aphids and worms can be, but rarely are a problem in my garden. Basil’s aromatic foliage is known to attract bees and butterflies.
Another tip when starting basil from seed is to get your seed in pelleted form. Johnny’s Selected Seed offers many varieties of basil that are pelleted. The kids that do my seeding at Sunshine Care, A Community of Assisted Living Homes in Poway, CA, can easily manipulate the pelleted seeds when sowing trays in our greenhouse. We grow Nufar, a Fusarium resistant, Italian large-leaf type.
Basil leaves hold many notable plant derived chemical compounds that are known to have disease preventing and health promoting properties. Their essential oils are known to have anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Basil also contains high levels of beta-carotene, Vitamin A.
So kick your Italian dishes up a notch by growing and using fresh basil when it’s warm outside!
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