Scientific Name: Ocimum basilicum var. purpurascens
Also known as Common Basil, St Joseph Wort, and Sweet Basil. From the family Lamiaceae.
Basil is native to India, the Middle East and some Pacific Islands. It has been cultivated in the Mediterranean for thousands of years, but the herb only came to Western Europe in the sixteenth century with the spice traders and to America and Australia with the early European settlers.
This plant is steeped in history and intriguing lore. This plant’s common name is believed to be derived from the abbreviation of Basilikon phuton, which means ‘kingly herb’ (in Greek), and it was believed have grown around Christ’s tomb after the resurrection. Some Greek Orthodox churches use it to prepare their holy water, and put pots of basil below their altars. However, there is some questioning as to its sanctity both Greeks and Romans believed that people should curse as they sow basil to ensure germination. There was even some doubt about whether it was poisonous or not, and in Western Europe it has been thought both to belong to the Devil and to be a remedy against witches. In Elizabethan times sweet basil was used as a snuff for colds and to clear the brain and deal with headaches, and in the seventeenth century Culpeper wrote of basil’s uncompromising if unpredictable appeal – ‘It either makes enemies or gains lovers but there is no in-between.’
Ocimum basilicum (Sweet Basil)
Annual. Ht 45cm. A strong scent. Green, medium-sized leaves. White flowers. Without doubt the most popular basil. Use sweet basil in pasta sauces and salads, especially with tomato. Combines very well with garlic. Do not let it flower if using for cooking.
Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’ (Cinnamon Basil)
Annual. Ht 45cm. Leaves olive/brown/green with a hint of purple, highly cinnamon-scented when rubbed. Flowers pale pink. Comes from Mexico and is used in spicy dishes and salad dressings.
Ocimum basilicum ‘Green Ruffles’ (Green Ruffles Basil)
Annual. Ht 30cm. Light green leaves, crinkly and larger than sweet basil. Spicy, aniseed flavour, good in salad dishes and with stir-fry vegetables. But it is not, to my mind, an attractive variety. In fact the first time I grew it I thought its crinkly leaves had a bad attack of greenfly. Grow in pots and protect from frost.
Ocimum basilicum ‘Horapha’ (Thai Basil, Horapha Basil – Rau Que)
Annual. Ht 42cm. Leaf olive/purplish. Stems red. Flowers with pink bracts. Aniseed in scent and flavor. A special culinary basil from Thailand. Use the leaves as a vegetable in curries and spicy dishes.
Ocimum basilicum – Napolitano (Lettuce-leaved Basil)
Annual. Ht 45cm. Leaves very large, crinkled, and with a distinctive flavor, especially good for pasta sauce. Originates in Naples region of Italy and needs a hot summer in cooler countries to be of any merit.
Ocimum basilicum var. purpurascens (Purple Basil, Dark Opal Basil)
Annual. Ht 30cm. Strongly scented purple leaves. Pink flowers. Very attractive plant with a perfumed scent and flavor that is especially good with rice dishes. The dark purple variety that was developed in 1962 at the University of Connecticut represents something of a breakthrough in herb cultivation, not least because, almost exclusively, herbs have escaped the attentions of the hybridisers. The variety was awarded the All American Medal by the seedsmen.
Ocimum basilicum var. purpurascens ‘Purple Ruffles’ (Purple Ruffles Basil)
Annual. Ht 30cm. Very similar to straight purple basil, though the flavour is not as strong and the leaf is larger with a feathery edge. Flowers are pink. It can be grown in pots in a sunny position outside, but frankly it is a pain to grow because it damps off so easily.
Ocimum x citriodorum (Lemon Basil – Kemangie)
Annual. Ht 30cm. Light, bright, yellowish-green leaves, more pointed than other varieties, with a slightly serrated edge. Flowers pale, whitish. Lemon basil comes from Indonesia, is tender in cooler climates, and susceptible to damping off. Difficult to maintain but well worth the effort. Both flowers and leaves have a lemon scent and flavor that enhance many dishes.
Ocimum minimum (Bush Basil)
Annual. Ht 30cm. Small green leaves, half the size of sweet basil. Flowers small, scented and whitish. Spread from Chile throughout South America, where, in some countries, it is believed to belong to the Goddess Erzulie and is carried as a powerful protector against robbery and by women to keep a lover’s eye from roving. Excellent in pots on the windowsill. Delicious whole in green salads and with ricotta cheese.
Ocimum minimum ‘Greek’ (Greek Basil – Fine-leaved Miniature)
Annual. Ht 23cm. This basil has the smallest leaves, tiny replicas of the bush basil leaves but, despite their size, they have a good flavor. As its name suggests, it originates from Greece. It is one of the easiest basils to look after – especially good in a pot. Use whole leaves in all salads and in tomato sauces.
Ocimum tenuiflorum syn. Ocimum sanctum (Sacred Basil, Kha Prao, Tulsi)
Annual. Ht 30cm. A small basil with olive/purple leaves with serrated edges. Stems deep purple. Flowers mauve/pink. The whole plant has a marvelously rich scent. Originally from Thailand, where it is grown around Buddhist temples. Can be used in Thai cooking with stir-fry hot peppers, chicken, pork or beef. The Indian-related form, is considered kingly or holy by the Hindus, sacred to the gods Krishna and Vishnu. It was the herb upon which to swear oaths in courts of law. It was also used throughout the Indian subcontinent as a disinfectant against malaria.
All basils can be grown from seed. Sow direct into pots or plug trays in early spring and germinate with warmth. Avoid using seed trays because basil has a long tap root and dislikes being transplanted. Plugs also help minimize damping off, to which all basil plants are prone. Water well at midday in dry weather even when transplanted into pots or containers: basil hates going to bed wet. This minimizes the chances of damping off and will prevent root rot, a hazard when air temperature is still dropping at night.
Plant out seedlings when large enough to handle and the danger of frost has passed. The soil needs to be rich and well drained, and the situation warm and sheltered, preferably with sun at midday. However, prolific growth will only be obtained usually in the greenhouse or in large pots on a sunny patio. I suggest that you plant basil in between tomato plants for the following reasons:
- Being a good companion plant, it is said to repel flying insects, so may help to keep the tomatoes pest-free.
- You will remember to use fresh basil with tomatoes.
- You will remember to water it.
- The situation will be warm and whenever you pick tomatoes you will tend to pick basil, which will encourage bushy growth and prevent it flowering, which in turn will stop the stems becoming woody and the flavor of its leaves bitter.
Pests and Diseases
Aphids and whitefly may be a problem with pot-grown plants. Wash off with liquid horticultural soap.
Seedlings are highly susceptible to damping off, a fungal disease encouraged by overcrowding in overly wet conditions in seed trays or pots. It can be prevented by sowing the seed thinly and widely and guarding against an over-humid atmosphere.
This is only a problem in areas susceptible to frost and where you can’t provide for its great need for warmth and nourishment. In such areas plant out after the frosts have finished; choose a well-drained, rich soil in a warm, sunny corner, protected from the wind. Alternatively, sow directly into the ground after any frosts. Keep pinching out young plants to promote new leaf growth and to prevent flowering. Harvest the leaves regularly.
At the end of the season, collect seeds of plants that have been allowed to flower. Before any frosts, bring pots into the house and place them on a windowsill. Dig up old plants and compost them, then dig over the area ready for new planting the following season.
Pick leaves when they are young and always from the top to encourage new growth. If freezing to store, paint both sides of each leaf with olive oil to stop it sticking to the next leaf and to seal in its flavor. If drying, do it as fast as you can. Basil leaves are some of the more difficult to dry successfully and I do not recommend it.
The most successful course, post-harvest, is to infuse the leaves in olive oil or vinegar. As well as being very useful in your own kitchen, both the oil and the vinegar make great Christmas presents (see page 628672).
Gather flowering tops as they open during the summer and early autumn. Add them fresh to salads, or dry to potpourris.
Basil is happy on a kitchen windowsill and in pots on the patio, and purple basil makes a good centerpiece in a hanging basket. In Europe basil is placed in pots outside houses to repel flies. Use a standard potting compost mixed in equal parts with composted fine bark.
Ocimum minimum ‘Greek’
Water containers before midday but do not over water. If that is not possible, water earlier in the day rather than later and again do not over water.
Once prescribed as a sedative against gastric spasms and as an expectorant and laxative, basil is rarely used in herbal medicines today. However, leaves added to food are an aid to digestion and if you put a few drops of basil’s essential oil on a sleeve and inhale, it can allay mental fatigue. For those that need a zing it can be used to make a very refreshing bath vinegar, which also acts as an antiseptic.
Keep it in a pot in the kitchen to act as a fly repellent, or crush a leaf and rub it on your skin, where the juice repels mosquitoes.
Basil has a unique flavor, so newcomers should use with discretion otherwise it will dominate other flavors. It is one of the few herbs to increase its flavor when cooked. For best results add at the very end of cooking.
Hints and Ideas
- Tear the leaves, rather than chop. Sprinkle over green salads or sliced tomatoes.
- Basil combines very well with garlic. Tear into French salad dressing.
- When cooking pasta or rice, heat some olive oil in a saucepan, remove it from the heat, add some torn purple basil leaves, toss the pasta or rice in the basil and oil, and serve. Use lemon basil to accompany a fish dish – it has a sharp lemon/spicy flavor when cooked.
- Add to a cold rice or pasta salad.
- Mix low-fat cream cheese with any basil and use in baked potatoes.
- Basil does not combine well with strong meats such as goat or venison. However, aniseed basil is very good with stir-fried pork.
- Sprinkle on fried or grilled tomatoes while they are still hot as a garnish.
- Very good with French bread and can be used instead of herb butter in the traditional hot herb loaf. The tiny leaves of Greek basil are best for this because you can keep them whole.
- Sprinkle on top of pizzas.
- Basil makes an interesting stuffing for chicken. Use sweet basil combined with crushed garlic, breadcrumbs, lemon peel, beaten egg and chopped nuts.