751 Ocimum basilicumCommon Names: basil, common basil, sweet basil Family: Lamiaceae (mint Family)
Basil is an annual herb to 2-3 ft (0.6-0.9 m) tall with green stems (usually woody at the base) that are square in cross section. Basil has opposite leaves, 2-4 in (5.1-10.2cm) long, and tiny purple or white flowers arranged in flattened whorls that encircle the stems, one whorl above another. Plants are leafy and branch freely with a pair of opposing branches in a flat plane, then another pair above in a plane perpendicular to the last, and so on. There are many cultivars of basil, selected for their fragrances and colors.
'Citriodorum' (lemon basil) has foliage that smells distinctly lemony. 'Minimum' (Greek basil) is a compact little plant with very small leaves; good for growing in a pot. 'Purpurascens' (dark opal basil) has deep purple leaves. 'Anise' and 'Cinnamon' smell like the spices they're named for. 'Crispum' (lettuce-leaved basil) has large crinkled leaves, great for catching the dressing in tossed salads. 'Green Ruffles' is especially ornamental with its ruffled, lime green leaves. 'Purple Ruffles' is striking with its ruffled maroon foliage, and makes a pretty herbal vinegar.
Sweet basil is native to tropical Asia. It is cultivated commercially in southern Europe, Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia, and California. There are several other species of Ocimum in cultivation: O. gratissimum (tree basil or East Indian basil) is a shrubby perennial to 6 ft (1.8 m) tall, with a strong clove fragrance from India and west Africa . O. tenuiflorum (holy basil or tulsi), is an ornamental with pink flowers and grayish, fuzzy leaves from India and Malaysia; it is sacred to Hindus and used in religious ceremonies. O. americanum (from Africa and Asia, not America!) has a strong lemony fragrance.
CultureBasil is easy to raise and fast growing too. Light: Full sun or, in very hot climates, light, partial shade. Moisture: Basil likes a well-drained soil and regular watering. It appreciates a good mulch covering over the roots. Hardiness: USDA Zones 5 - 11. Basil is a tender annual and cannot tolerate frost. It sometimes seems like the leaves turn black if frost is just in the forecast! If it doesn't get frosted, basil sometimes will live for two years. Propagation: Basil is easy to grow from seed. Sow in place after all danger of frost has past. For areas with short growing seasons, start indoors 4-8 weeks before setting out.
Basil is easy to grow in containers, in the herb garden, or in the flower garden. Dark opal basil is especially attractive growing with yellow flowers or silver-gray foliage plants, and the ruffled basils add an interesting texture to beds and borders. Grow pretty little Greek basil in a pot on the kitchen windowsill. Set up a porch or patio planter with basil, chives, thyme and sweet marjoram. Grow the larger herbs like rosemary and parsley in the ground nearby, and you'll have all the most important herbs within steps of the kitchen counter.
Basil is the most popular of all herbs. Its flavor has been described as spicy and peppery, with a hint of clove and mint. It goes well with olive oil, garlic, lemon, rosemary and thyme. Cut basil leaves as needed for the kitchen. The plants grow back quickly. Even if you don't need the herb, its best to pinch off the stems before they go to flower. This keeps the plant growing vigorously and makes it branch more. The flavor is said to be best just before the flowers open. Basil can be dried and stored in airtight jars, or frozen in airtight plastic bags. These are acceptable substitutes, but not nearly as good as the fresh herb. A better way to store basil is immersed in olive oil. Chop or mince raw basil leaves for recipes, but don't add to cooked dishes until the last minute since the fragrant oils are very volatile and will quickly dissipate into the air. Use whole leaves in tossed salads. Basil goes great with tomatoes. Try a sliced tomato and basil leaf sandwich. A sprig of raw basil is a delightful aromatic garnish on a plate of fish or meat. Use the flowers, too; they make a pretty garnish and can be used in recipes. Basil adds zing to mild vegetables like zucchini, summer squash and carrots. Basil is a traditional ingredient in Mediterranean, Italian and Thai cooking, used with beans, rice, pasta, tomatoes and eggs. Of course basil is best known for tomato sauce and pesto.
Pesto is the reason we have basil! Make a simple, mouth-watering pesto by combining a cup of fresh basil leaves with 2 or 3 crushed cloves of garlic, 2 tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese, a half-teaspoon of lemon juice, and 2 or 3 tablespoons of toasted pine nuts. (Toast the pine nuts in a skillet lightly coated with olive oil until they are golden brown.) Put the mixture in a blender and puree, adding enough extra virgin olive oil to make a smooth paste. Pesto is best used fresh, but you can freeze it in ice cube trays, then transfer the cubes to plastic bags. Pesto oxidizes quickly and its bright green color changes to dark olive unless kept from the air. Until you're ready to use it, press a piece of plastic wrap right on the surface of the pesto. Use your pesto on pasta; spread it on pizza dough; use it as a sandwich spread with sliced tomatoes; toss it with cubed potatoes and bake at 400F; stuff pesto in mushroom caps and broil until it bubbles; spread pesto on bread, then toast under the broiler for a delicious garlic bread or cut up for soup and salad croutons.
Use dried basil leaves in potpourris and sachets. Basil is widely used in cosmetics, perfumes, shampoos and soaps. Herbalists recommend basil tea for stomach aches, indigestion and constipation. They steep a teaspoon of dried basil leaves in a cup of boiling water to make a tea that soothes, relaxes and aids digestion. Modern medicine can't back up the therapeutic claims, but there is no evidence that basil tea is bad for you.
The ancient Greeks called it the King of herbs. The Egyptians offered it to their gods, and used it in embalming fluids. Basil is considered a sign of love in Italy; when a woman puts a sprig of basil outside her room, it means she is ready to receive her lover. The French call it herbe royale, the royal herb. In India, holy basil is worshiped and dedicated to the gods, Vishnu and Krishna. I like basil too.
Steve Christman 7/15/00; updated 11/8/03, 7/19/04, 2/9/10