Few pleasures can rival walking through an
herb garden, brushing past Ocimum basilicum and inhaling the intoxicating scents of
anise, clove, cinnamon and lemon in the warm summer breeze. Ah, the sweet smell of basil!
If aroma were its only attribute, basil would still be well worth growing, but gardeners
and gourmets alike know this herb offers much more. From May through October, gardeners in
most zones can count on basils to liven up a variety of summer dishes, provide the
essential ingredient for mouth watering pesto and add colorful, ornamental touches
throughout the landscape. Small wonder that basil, called the "herbe royale "
by the French, has become the king of the herb garden in America.
An Herb Rooted In History
The genus name, Ocimum , is derived from a Greek verb
meaning "to be fragrant". Basil is a member of the mint family and probably was
native to tropical Asia. In medieval times, basil made its way to the Middle East, and in
the 16th century was brought to Europe from India. While ancient Greeks thought the
fragrant leaves to be cursed, Romans associated basil with love and devotion. It was
believed if a man accepted a sprig of basil from a woman, he would love her forever. A pot
of basil seen on a balcony signaled a suitor that the lady welcomed his attentions.
Despite the diverse legends surrounding basil, the herb was traded across the globe and
eventually arrived in America. Sweet basil is one of the herbs mentioned in colonial
Although a perennial in their native land, basils should be
treated as annuals in most of North America. They are not hardy below 32°F, 0°C and will
likely turn black at the first freeze. The tropical origins dictate where basils grow
best: a warm, sunny location where plenty of moisture is available. Basils require at
least four hours of sun daily and should not be planted until night temperatures are in
the upper 50s (mid-teens C).
Basils will tolerate a wide variety of growing conditions but do
best when planted in rich, loamy , well-drained soil. To provide proper air circulation
and discourage disease, plants should be set about one foot apart. Pinch back the top of
the tender stems to encourage a bushier plant. Keep a vigilant eye out for flowers and
prune immediately to promote further leaf growth.
Water regularly -- at least one inch per week. Basils grow
quickly and are heavy feeders, so be sure to give plants a dose of liquid fertilizer twice
a month. If you dont have room to plant basils outdoors, or if you live in an area
where summer evenings are cool, try growing basil in clay pots. It is one of the few
flowering herbs that has historically been raised as a pot plant. English cottage
gardeners often presented guests with a pot of basil as a symbol of good wishes. Just be
sure to keep your plant well watered during the summer midday heat.
If you think "green" when you think about basils,
youre in for a surprise. In addition to the popular culinary basils, you may want to
consider some of the more colorful basils for cooking and garden display.
African Blue Basil
Green leaves shaded with purple; leaf veins and stems are purple.
A wonderful ornamental plant.
Dark green, distinctively veined foliage, spicy aroma with a hint
Genoa Green Basil
Along with Genovese, one of the best basils for
Light green leaves are wonderful in salads and in iced tea.
Purple Ruffles Basil
With ruffled, deeply toothed leaves, this plant is excellent for
containers or as an ornamental accent in the garden.
Spicy Globe Basil
Dwarf hybrid loved for its spicy aroma, flavor and bushy
appearance. Excellent for edgings.
The Endless Summer
The end of the season doesnt mean the end of a good thing.
Most basils root easily in water so you can extend your harvest. Place your cuttings in a
small jar or paper cup on a sunny windowsill. Be sure to change the water daily to avoid
stem rot, them pot them up before the roots get too long. You can also freeze chopped
leaves in an ice cube tray. Pop the frozen basil cubes into a freezer bag and use them
whenever you want to spice up a meal and revisit the sweet days of summer.