Basil is one of the most popular herbs grown in the world. It is native to Asia (India, Pakistan, Iran, Thailand and other countries) and can be found growing wild in tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world. Because of its popularity, basil is often referred to as the "king of the herbs". Basil has several name derivations and beliefs associated with it. The comon name basil may be derived from the Greek words basileus meaning "king." or basilikon meaning "royal." A Latin word, basiliscus, refers to "basilisk" a mythical fire-breathing dragon that was so repulsive it could kill with just a glance. According to Roman legend, basil is the antidote to the venom of the basilisk. The botanical name Ocimum is derived from the Greek meaning "to be fragrant". In the 1600's, the English used basil as a flavoring in their food and also as an insecticide. It was hung in doorways to ward off flies and other unwanted pests (evil spirits). Italians used basil as the sign of love. A pot of basil placed on the balcony meant that a woman was ready for her suitor to arrive. And, if he brought a sprig of basil, she would fall in love with him. It was also worn by a courting young man to signal to a woman that he had serious intentions. In India, Hindus believed that if a leaf of basil was buried with them, it would get them into heaven, thus the popularity of holy basil. Basil was also sacred to the Gods in India, Krishna, and Vishnu. In America, basil has been grown for over 200 years. It was air dried or preserved in layers of salt and kept in earthenware crocks.

Basil has many uses, the most common of which is its culinary use. As a fresh herb, it is used to flavor foods such as vegetables, poultry, and fish. It is famous for use in Italian dishes such as pesto. Basil is commonly preserved in vinegar or olive oil and adds a delightful flavor to both for salad dressings. It is also used for flavor in jelly, honey, tea, and liquor. Basil can also be used dried. The flowers of basil are also edible and can be an attractive addition to salads and other dishes.

Besides its edibility, basil is an aromatic herb and is often used in potpourri and sachets. The cosmetic industry uses basil oil in lotion, shampoo, perfume, and soap. As an ornamental in the flower garden, basil has attractive foliage and flowers.

Basil is a tender perennial grown as an annual. It can be grown easily from seed. Start seed indoors 4 or 5 weeks before the last frost date. It likes warm temperatures (about 75 F) for germination. Seed can also be sown directly in the ground outdoors after it has warmed in the spring. Plant basil outdoors after all danger of frost is past. Basil does not tolerate cold temperatures. Plant in full sun and avoid heavy nitrogen fertilization. Too much nitrogen affects oil content and flavor. Water regularly with an inch of water a week. Basil can also be propagated vegetatively through tip cuttings. Root cuttings in moist perlite or coarse sand

To harvest, remove terminal growth whenever four sets of true leaves can be left on the plant. This encourages bushier growth and increased yield. For best foliage flavor, cut before flowering. Leaf flavor changes after flowers open. After cutting, wash and pat leaves dry. Use immediately or store in perforated plastic bags in the refrigerator. When drying the leaves, harvest early in the day but after dew has dried. Spread leaves on screens or loosely bundle and air dry. Warm air circulation (less than 130 F) aids color retention. Sun dried leaves tend to be brownish in color.

Basil is a member of the mint family which is characterized by square stems. They belong in the genus Ocimum. Several different species are grown, the most common being basilicum. Over 150 different species and varieties are available. These are some of the more common:

Common NameLatin NameDescription
Sweet BasilOcimum basilicumMost common type grown. White flowers. Bright green, 2 to 3 inch long leaves. Erect habit. Clovelike scent.
'Genovese' BasilOcimum basilicum 'Genovese'An Italian strain, regarded as the best variety for pesto and garlic dishes. Dark green leaves up to 2 inches long. Slow to bolt. Erect habit.
Bush or Greek BasilOcimum basilicum minimum Dwarf varieties with very small, less than 1/2 inch long, pungent leaves. White flowers. Plants are excellent for edging or containers. Flavor is preferred by many chefs. Varieties like 'Fine Green,' 'Green Bouquet,' and 'Spicy Globe' are widely available.
Purple BasilOcimum basilicum 'Purpurascens Grown for their ornamental foliage as well as their 'culinary uses. Soft lavender flowers. Same shape and size leaf as sweet basil. 'Opal,' 'Purple Ruffles,' and 'Red Rubin' are excellent selections.
Lettuce-leaf BasilOcimum basilicum crispumLarge, wide leaves. Flavor is less pronounced than other green basils, sometimes preferred for salads or sauces. Common varieties include 'Mammoth,' 'Napoletano,' and 'Green Ruffles.'
Scented BasilOcimum basilicum odoratumThese basils possess flavors reminiscent of other plants. Cinnamon, lemon, and licorice or anise basils all fit in this category. They can be used in recipes where a touch of a different flavor is desired. Often used in fruit preserves or in custards and sorbets.
Holy BasilOcimum canum or Ocimum sanctumLeaves are small and fuzzy with a sweet, clove-like fragrance. Violet or white flowers. Used in some religious ceremonies. Not highly suited for culinary uses.
Camphor BasilOcimum kilimandscharicum Has a strong, medicinal scent. Gray-green foliage. Not used for culinary purposes.
Peruvian BasilOcimum micranthemumHas a somewhat medicinal, sweet flavor though it can be used in cooking. Sparse flowering.
Thrysiflora BasilOcimum thrysifloraGrown for its ornamental seed head. Forms a triangular shaped plant with a strong V shaped branching habit. The seed head is a mound of purple flowers.

This article originally appeared in the March 21, 1997 issue, pp. 25-26.


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