A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love. ~ Saint Basil
One spice I have grown for many years is an essential ingredient in Italian cooking. It has an incredible scent when you brush up against it let alone the aroma when you pick the leaves to make sauce. Of course I am talking about basil. And while I have used basil in sauces and soups, there is so much I do not know about basil. I have grown some other basils besides the large green leaf Italian type such as purple and variegated basil. But I did not know that it was not just an Italian spice, or that there were different kinds of basil used all over the world with different tastes. A few years ago, I finally learned basil is an essential spice in Thai food.
So I planned to try some new types of basil in my garden in the coming years. For this year I am growing lemon basil along with the typical Italian type. In this Italian household, it would be sacrilege if we didn’t grow the Italian basil. But I look forward to tasting and experimenting with other basil. I am linking in with Diana@Elephant’s Eye on False Bay for her meme, Dozen for Diana as I profile this wonderful herb that is so much more than culinary.
Basil goes by many names, Sweet Basil, Thai Basil even Holy Basil, but they are all names for the herb Ocimum, part of the family Lamiaceae (Mint). It is also known as Saint Joseph’s Wort in some countries.
And these different names go along with the many varieties of basil. The kind used in Italian cooking is sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum). And then there is also Thai basil (O. basilicum var. thyrsiflora), lemon basil (O. X citriodorum) and holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) to name a few.
The word basil comes from the Greek, basileus, meaning king. This seems to have come from the idea that basil may have been used in royal baths. And basil is still considered the “king of herbs” by many as it is one of the most popular herbs in cooking.
Most basils are cultivars of sweet basil. They say there are now over 160 named cultivars available and more new ones every year. So there are lots for me to try.
Basil is a half-hardy annual plant and is an annual here, although some are perennial in warm, tropical climates. It will die when temps reach freezing in my garden. I have read that it will come back if let go to seed which I will try in a few spots, but I fear it is too cold for it to reseed here.
Basil prefers hot, dry conditions so imagine how happy my basil has been in our unusually cool, wet spring and now hot, humid, wet summer. And basil isn’t a perfect plant as it can have some issues:
- If the leaves are wilting it is usually from a lack of water, but it will recover if watered thoroughly and placed in a sunny location.
- Yellow leaves towards the bottom of the plant mean that the plant has been stressed; usually this means that it needs less water, or less or more fertilizer. Right now, for my basil, it means it needs less water as I am finding many yellowing leaves.
- Mulching will help provide the right soil moisture, prevent weeds and keep the leaves clean. I should get in the habit of mulching mine.
- Do not over fertilize plants as it will produce less flavorful basil.
- Although basil is pest free, it suffers from wilt, gray mold and downy mildew. I have lost whole crops to wilt some years.
Basil can grow up to several feet tall, depending on the cultivar. Flower spikes are small with white, pink or purple flowers, blooming from summer to fall. Leaves also vary in color and size depending on the cultivar. Basil grows quickly from seed, and grows best when planted in full sun in amended soil and when both day and night temperatures are above 50°F.
Basil plants grow one central stem, and it is best to pinch them back by half once they reach about 6 inches tall. This forces the plant to branch and grow more leaves. As the plant sends out new stems, continue to pinch them back. You want more leaves not flowers as basil starts to lose flavor once it flowers.
Along with pinching the plant, it is important to feed basil with a high nitrogen fertilizer like fish emulsion or sea weed every few weeks as this promotes foliage growth.
Basil can also be propagated from cuttings put in water until roots develop. And they can be grown in a basement, under fluorescent lights which I do in winter.
Basil has been grown for more than 5,000 years, and is native to India and other tropical regions of Asia. There are even ancient records that show sweet basil was in the Hunan region of China and migrated westward.
Basil was also used as an embalming herb, and was found in mummies of ancient Egypt. It was a symbol of mourning in Greece, and in Europe was placed in the hands of the dead to ensure a safe journey to the after life.
In Italy, basil symbolized love as sweethearts wore a sprig of basil in their hair to win their love. In Mexico, people in love would keep basil in their pockets. While in Romania, a man would give basil to his sweetheart to show they were officially engaged. And in Portugal, a dwarf bush basil is presented in a pot, to your sweetheart.
On the other hand, basil also represented hatred in ancient Greece, and European lore sometimes claimed that basil was a symbol of Satan.
Other European folklore included carrying a sprig of basil in your pocket to bring wealth, sprinkling basil on the floor to fend off evil and putting some near doors and cash registers to attract customers and money.
Basil is best known as a culinary herb in the cuisine of Italy, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Taiwan. Asian basil is stronger in flavor than Italian basil. Basil is used in pesto, pasta sauce, eggs, soups, salads, salad dressings, meats, and potatoes, Thai curries, and to flavor vinegar and oils. It is also good source of vitamin A and antioxidants.
Basil is best used fresh in recipes, and is added at the last moment. The fresh herb can only be kept for a short time in the refrigerator, and longer in the freezer. I do not use the dried herb since it has little flavor compared to fresh or frozen.
The flower buds have a more subtle flavor and they are edible.
Lemon basil has a strong lemony smell and flavor, and its flowers are wonderful in salads. I hope to try lemon basil with fruit or in place of mint in drinks and desserts.
Scientific studies have shown that basil oil has great antioxidant, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties, and has shown to have a potential for treating cancer. In a recent report it was shown to have insect-repelling properties due to the extracts from the plant being very toxic to mosquitoes. Now if I could just cover myself in basil somehow.
In some countries and cultures, it is also been known to treat stress, asthma, diabetes, headaches, sore throats and coughs. As a member of the mint family, it’s useful in helping with digestion. And it’s also said to bring out hair’s natural shine.
Because basil is easy to grow, it is a wonderful addition to the herb or vegetable garden. The purple and variegated basil looks wonderful interplanted with summer annuals and other herbs in pots. Plant it in the garden wherever you have a sunny well drained spot so you can brush up against it like lavender and smell its’ wonderful scent.
Language of Flowers
The Victorian language of flowers for basil has two meanings: common basil signifies hatred and sweet basil conveys the sender’s best wishes. I’ll go with best wishes as this herb is too delicious to think anything negative.
And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun, And she forgot the blue above the trees, And she forgot the dells where waters run, And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze; She had no knowledge when the day was done, And the new morn she saw not: but in peace Hung over her sweet Basil evermore, And moistened it with tears unto the core.
‘Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil’
Check out other posts in the series, Simply the Best-Herbs:
Next up on the blog: As July marches on, it will be time for another Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. Lots happening in the garden this summer.
I am linking in with Michelle@Rambling Woods for her Nature Notes meme. It is a great way to see what is happening in nature around the world every Wednesday.
As always, I’ll be joining Tootsie Time’sFertilizer Friday.
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