The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

The Beauty of Bombastic Basil

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Some things are just better when they are fresh. Fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, fresh air and fresh herbs. Charles E. Voigt, State Vegetable and Herb Specialist with University of Illinois Extension Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences offers these tips for producing and enjoying one of the best fresh herbs - bombastic basil.

Most of the basil varieties familiar to Americans belong to the species Ocimum basilicum, although worldwide, many additional species are used.

'Sweet' basil is the most common green form of the plant found in gardens in the U.S. 'Mammoth', 'Lettuce Leaf', and 'Monstruoso' are larger-leaved selections of this type. The giant leaves are perfect for use as sandwich wraps.

Colorful basils include 'Purple Ruffles', 'Osmin', and 'Red Rubin'. They are stunning accents in the garden and make lovely claret-colored vinegars and oils.

'Spicy Globe', 'Green Bush', 'Green Ruffles', and 'Greek Mini' are compact plants which are favorites for edging flower gardens. For pesto, 'Fino Verde', 'Genovese', and 'Napolitano' are great choices. For lazy cooks (or is it energy frugal folks?) the small leaves of 'Spicy Globe' translate into no need for chopping leaves.

Basils which mimic other flavors include 'Cinnamon', 'Lemon', 'Licorice', 'Anise', and 'Lime'. 'Holy', 'Tulsi Sacred', and 'Thai' are imports from other lands. 'Siam Queen' and 'Sweet Dani' are back-to-back All America Award winners for 1997 and 1998, respectively. They were chosen for their beauty in the garden and flavor in cooking.

The diversity in the above mentioned varieties merely scratches the surface of the hundreds of species and varieties of basil available on the worldwide market.

Most basil is grown from seed as an annual or purchased as transplants. Do not purchase transplants that show brown streaking on the stem. This is likely fusarium fungal disease, which causes sudden wilting of the leaves and the eventual death of the plant. It can also contaminate the soil for years. Fusarium has been a serious problem for the basil industry.

Basil can be planted now. It loves heat. Basil is very sensitive to cool temperatures, and will be devastated by any hint of frost.

It prefers a fertile, well-aerated, organically rich soil. Basil appreciates regular fertilization and watering. Without sufficient water, basil's "fragrance factory" shuts down.

Basil should be cut for use before the first flower buds open, and harvest may begin as soon as the young plants begin to stretch. The tips can be pinched out to encourage branching. At least 1 or 2 nodes (leaf junctures) should be left on the plant so that side branches can form. Harvesting the tips of these side shoots can continue throughout the warm growing season. Flower buds should be pinched off as they appear since their formation alters the flavor of the plant.

Because basil is best used fresh from the garden, harvest for lunch use should be done in mid-morning, after the dew has dried. For dinner dishes, mid to late afternoon is the best time to harvest. Basil's delicate oils evaporate quickly after cutting, making fresh leaves far superior to dry. Refrigeration causes the leaves to quickly discolor, therefore store basil as cut stems in a glass of water at room temperature. If the basil crop is abundant, branches can be worked into summer flower arrangements to add color, texture, and fragrance.

For more information about selecting, growing and preserving herbs check out U of I Extension website

In the market for herb plants? Stop by Lincoln Square Village in Urbana on Saturday May 12th starting at 8 AM for a plant sale extravaganza. Shop among several vendors offering native plants, hostas, herbs, and annual flowers. Help support Grand Prairie Friends, C-U Herb Society, Illinois Prairie Hosta Society, and C-U Business and Professional Women's Club. Knowledgeable people will be there to answer your questions.

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