Basil - Factsheet
Growing, Selecting And Using Basil
Basil is truly an incredible herb. It is enjoyed for its rich and spicy, mildly peppery flavor with a trace of mint and clove. Basil is an annual herb belonging to the mint family, Lamiaceae (Labiatae) and like others in this family, basil can be identified by its square, hairy stems. There are over 40 known varieties of basil of which Ocimum basilicum or Sweet Basil is the most commonly known and grown. Ocimum is from a Greek verb that means "to be fragrant." The foliage is easily bruised; just brushing against its foliage releases its wonderfully spicy fragrance. Varieties can grow to a height of 2 1/2 feet and are about as wide. Foliage colors range from pale to deep green, vivid purple and even purple laced with goldish yellow foliage. Texture varies from silky and shiny to dull and crinkly. Flowers appear in summer as whorls on the ends of branches and are either white or lavender. Some of the unusual fragrances and flavors include: cinnamon, lemon and anise. Basil is native to India and Asia having been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years. It is grown there as a perennial in those warm, tropical climates.
With so many attributes it isn't any wonder that basil has become increasingly popular over the years. Being a member of the mint family, it is not surprising to see it recommended for digestive complaints. So instead of an after dinner mint, try sipping an after dinner cup of basil tea to aid digestion and dispel flatulence. Herbalists have recommended basil for years for stomach cramps, vomiting and constipation. Basil has been described as having a slight sedative action, which would explain why it is sometimes recommended for headaches and anxiety.
Basil is surprisingly easy to grow. It is easily grown from seed regardless of whether it is started indoors or broadcast outside in the garden after the danger of frost has passed. Basil is very tender and sensitive to frost injury. For indoor culture, sow seeds in a flat, and cover them with a moistened, sterile mix to a depth not more than twice the size of the seed. Space seeds 3/8 to 1/2 inch apart in the flat. Maintain a soil temperature of approximately 70 degrees F. Once germination begins, at 5 to 7 days, the plantlets must be kept warm at 70 degrees F or above and the soil must be kept moist. When seedlings have at least 2 pairs of true leaves, transplant them to 2 inch pots.
Basils grow best in a sunny location and need a well-drained, rich soil. Plants started indoors and hardened off in May can be planted outside to their permanent location and spaced about 12 inches apart. Since moisture is important to a good basil crop, mulching the area will not only discourage weeds but will maintain the moisture level of the soil keeping the plant healthy. Basil prefers a soil pH of 5.5 to 6.5. Fertilize basil sparingly as this decreases the fragrant oils. To encourage a bushy, healthy plant and to maximize production, don't be afraid to prune basil. Pinch off the flower buds as soon as they begin to emerge. Basil will usually have to be pruned every 2 to 3 weeks.
The ideal time to harvest basil and other herbs that are to be dried, is on a sunny morning immediately after the dew has evaporated and before the day becomes too warm. When harvesting basil, cut it back to about 1/4 inch above a node. Leave enough foliage on the plant so it can continue growing healthy.
There are several methods you can use to dry basil; all methods are relatively simple. First dry basil in small bunches by hanging them upside down in a dark, dry, warm, well ventilated room. Use twine, rubber bands or twist ties to hold the bundles together. Second, you can dry basil leaves on screens placed outside in the shade on a hot day. Cover them with cheesecloth to keep the leaves from blowing away. Still another method of drying is on a low setting in the microwave. Lay basil on a paper towel and cover it with a paper towel. It could take up to 3 minutes to dry basil in the microwave. Stop periodically throughout the drying process to turn the basil to help promote quicker drying and to avoid burning. It is very difficult to dry herbs without burning them because of hot spots in the microwave. If you smell the herb as it's drying, chances are you have lost many of the fragrant oils. After drying the basil, store in a sealed, preferably dark container away from the heat.
In addition to the drying methods mentioned above, you can also preserve basil by freezing it in ice cubes (nearest to fresh taste when added to cooked foods), putting fresh leaves in vinegar or oil (most useful in salad dressing), and blending it with oil, cheese, and pine nuts, (walnuts or sunflower seeds) to make pesto. Pesto freezes well for six months. Be sure to "seal" your pesto with a layer of olive oil. Dark opal basil makes a beautiful, tangy purple vinegar. Putting herbs in vinegar captures their flavor for the months when fresh herbs are not available.
Basils can be used in the herb garden, flower garden, as borders plants, in containers, raised beds, and in hanging baskets.
Each variety of basil can add an accent to a garden: dark opal offers stunning purple foliage and mauve flowers; the miniature or bush basil is especially attractive for borders; the ruffled varieties (O. basilicum 'PurpleRuffles' and O. basilicum 'Green RuMes') offer unique textures.
Bring the wonderful fragrance of basil indoors by incorporating them in potpourris, sachets, and dried winter bouquets. The heavily scented opal basil and the sweet scented thyrsiflora basil are particularly good. Other fragrant varieties include: lemon, anise and cinnamon basils.
The best flavor is found in fresh leaves, but frozen and dried leaves are worth the effort also. The leaves can be used cooked or raw. Crush, chip or mince the leaves and add to recipes, or add whole leaves to salads. Sprigs of basil make a wonderfully aromatic garnish. The flowers are beautiful, edible, and also make a unique garnish.
Basil is traditional in Italian, Mediterranean andThai cookery. It is superb with veal, lamb, fish, poultry, whitebeans, pasta, rice, tomatoes, cheese and eggs. It blends well with garlic, thyme and lemon. Basil adds zip to mild vegetables like zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, parsnips, spinach and to the soups, stews and sauces in which these vegetables appear, and to add to its versatility, basil is also one of the ingredients in the liqueur chartreuse.
Secrets About Basil
Basil is described by Webster as being of the mint family used especially as a seasoning. As you read this article you will find that basil is much more than something we add to our spaghetti.
Basil's botanical name is Ocimium basilicum. It is a native of India, South Asia, the Middle East and has been grown for thousands of years in the Mediterranean region. Basil is found growing wild in tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world.
There are many rituals and beliefs associated with basil. The French call basil herb royale. In Italy it is a sign of love, romance and fine dining. Jewish folklore suggests it adds strength while fasting. Basil was said to be found in Christ's tomb after his resurrection. Greek Orthodox use basil to prepare holy water and pots of basil are placed below church alters. In Europe and India they place basil in the hands of the dead to ensure a safe journey. The Egyptians and Grecians believe it will actually open the gates of heaven for a person passing on.
Maybe all of us had better get out our garden tools, plant some basil and begin to get prepared! Growing basil is something you definitely want to try. Basil is an annual herb with a spicy, clove like fragrance and flavor. Sow seeds indoors in the spring or plant seeds outside when all danger of frost has passed and the ground is at least 50 degrees. Make sure you place basil in a sheltered spot near your peppers and tomatoes to enhance growth. Your plants should be placed 1 foot apart, 1/8 inch deep, in rich moist light sandy soil, in full sun. Take care not to over water. Basil grows up to 3 foot high and flowers in mid-to-late summer. Basil has a bushy appearance with leafy stems. The leaves are very fragrant. Pick the leaves when young. To encourage growth and a bushy plant, prune the main stem leaving at least one node with two shoots. Do this before it flowers. Gather the tops as the flowers open. To store basil, dry the leaves or brush the leaves with oil and freeze.
There are many varieties of basil: Sweet Basil, Bush Basil, Dark Opal Basil, Lemon Basil, Holy Basil, Vero Basil, Purple Ruffle Basil and the list goes on. Sweet Basil and Bush Basil are best choices for culinary use. [See Species chart below.]
Basil has been known for many years as an herbal remedy for diseases of the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, and the bladder. It is primarily a digestive and nervous system aid. Infuse basil and use it as a tea for indigestion. Inhale basil tea to relieve cold symptoms. A tonic can be made by steeping basil leaves in wine for several hours. Basil has uplifting, energizing, anti-depressant properties.
The dried leaves are used as snuff to relieve headaches and colds. Basil is also used as an insect repellent. Place a pot of basil outside your door to repel flies. Use basil essential oil on a bee sting (use only one drop, more than one drop may irritate the skin) or crush the leaves and rub on cuts, insect bites and stings.
Some of the ailments basil can treat are: anxiety, concentration, indigestion, respiratory problems, colic, tight coughs, asthma, nervous headaches, migraines, muscle tension, nerve pain, memory loss, insomnia, infection, a stuffy head, colds, sinusitis, sore throats, bronchial congestion, appetite loss, gas, diarrhea, and nausea.
Use basil flowers and leaves for an invigorating bath. Basil adds luster to hair: brunettes, add it to a rosemary rinse, blondes, add it to a chamomile rinse. Combine basil essential oil with other essential oils to make perfumes and toilet water. Blends well with: Bergamot, geranium, hyssop, neoili, marjoram, melissa and lavender.
Basil is very aromatic. Add dried basil to potpourri and sachets. Lemon basil and opal basil are good choices.
Use basil as an ornamental; not because of its beautiful flowers, but because it has beautiful shiny leaves that can offset other flowering plants.
Last but not least, basil is very compatible with tomatoes. Basil is known as the tomato herb. Use sweet basil in your pesto and tomato sauces. Sprinkle dried or cut fresh basil over salads and sliced tomatoes. Basil also goes well in soups, salads, eggs, fish and meat dishes.
We would love to help you with your basil needs. Try our new basil hair rinse or our basil toning body rub. Take a peek in our Herbal Kitchen. We have quality dried basil and packets of herbal mixtures to make your own herbal vinegars.
* The information in this article should not replace the advice of your medical practitioner.
Diane Kennedy Snyder is an Herb Specialist and herbal product designer.
This page compliments of Marisa Ciceran