Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Besides vine-ripened tomatoes, my favorite produce harvested from my garden each summer is fresh basil. The spicy sweet fragrance is no comparison to the faded scent of dried versions.
Basil is an ancient herb that has many legends attached to it. Legend links basil to just about any emotion or feeling imaginable—love and hate, pain and pleasure, basil has been associated with all of these over time.
It is most likely that basil originated in Asia. Alexander the Great brought basil to ancient Greece more than 300 years B.C.E., and it spread as far north as England by the 1500's and on to North America via the American colonies in the 1600's.
Basil is of the genus Ocimum, which is in the same family as mint. Basil shares the "badge" of all members of the mint family—square stems. The genus name Ocimum is from the ancient Greek word okimon, meaning "smell". The sweet spicy scent of basil was certainly an influence on its name. The species name basilicum is Latin for the Greek word basilikon, meaning "king" or "royal".
Some authors argue that the negative associations of basil are due the species name basilicum being similar to the name of the basilisk, a mythical serpent. Harry Potter fans should recall that when Harry fought the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets, the trick was to avoid the gaze of the basilisk, because if the evil serpent looked at you, it meant being petrified on the spot.
Other equally disturbing legends about basil said that if you chewed the leaves and placed them in the sun, they would spontaneously turn into worms. If that isn't gross enough for you, some believed that basil would transform into scorpions, and if you ate basil, the scorpions would form in your brain!
Not all the basil legends were fuel for nightmares. The Hindu tradition teaches that Holy Basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum, grew from the ashes of the goddess Tulasi, and symbolized love, eternal life, purification and protection. Basil is said to have grown on the hill where Christ was crucified, and is associated with St. Basil. In Greece on St. Basil's feast day, January 1st, church members bring basil to church to be blessed.
Other legends linked basil to love and affection. Some ancient pagans considered basil to be an aphrodisiac, and it was used in love spells. In Italy, basil is called "bacia-nicola" meaning "kiss me Nicolas" hinting at the belief that basil would attract husbands to wives. My husband commented recently that basil would make a good women's perfume, so maybe there's something to this legend.
Ancient Greeks and Romans believed that the only way basil seeds would grow was to scream wild curses and shout while sowing the seeds. While sometimes gardening will prompt you to use some colorful language, basil really is one of the easiest herbs to grow—no four-letter words are necessary.
The key to growing your own basil is to remember that basil is a tropical plant and is extremely sensitive to cold temperatures. For this reason, many home gardeners choose to start basil seed indoors while the weather is still cool and there is a chance of frost.
Basil needs full sun, and well-drained soil in order to produce the most flavorful leaves. Water stress can severely slow or even kill a basil plant. They need plenty of regular watering during the heat of summer to keep them from wilting. Mulches are recommended for conserving moisture as well as preventing soil splashing which keeps the leaves clean.
It is tempting to over-apply fertilizer on basil, thinking that this will produce more of the flavorful leaves that are so popular in tomato sauces, pesto, and other culinary delights. Heavy fertilizing will produce more leaves, but will reduce the flavor quality. This is because the fertilizer pushes faster leaf growth, while slowing production of the oils responsible for the distinctive basil flavor.
As basil grows, eventually it will produce flower buds. If allowed to bloom, the basil will not produce any more leaves, and those still on the plant will decline in quality. To extend your basil harvest, pinch the flower buds off as they appear. This will encourage more bushy growth and a more sturdy plant as well.
There seems to be more and more types of basil available at garden centers each year. If you include mail order sources, the list of cultivars seems to never end. Lemon, cinnamon, lime, and licorice basil are cultivars that have some hint of their name in their flavor. The most unique one I found this summer was Green Pepper Basil, which did really have a very "green" aftertaste reminiscent of a green bell pepper.
There is incredible variety among plant habit, size, and color in basil cultivars. Flowers range in color from white to shades of pink and purple. Leaf color varies in both color and size. Several deep purple-leaved cultivars are available, and there is even a variegated cultivar available called 'Holly's Painted'. One of my favorite large leaf varieties is 'Lettuce Leaf", whose large leaves have a crinkly texture much like a lettuce leaf. It is an excellent substitute for lettuce on sandwiches or added to salad. To me, a BLT made with garden fresh tomatoes and Lettuce Leaf Basil is a taste that surpasses anything available from the grocery store.
Most people agree that dried basil is no comparison to the flavor of fresh. It is possible to freeze basil leaves by themselves, but often the leaves will turn black in the freezer. Many prefer to combine the leaves whole or chopped with olive oil before freezing, which maintains the green color. One popular method freezes chopped basil combined with water or oil in ice cube trays. The individual cubes can be used in recipes as needed. That way you can have a little bit of summer on even the darkest winter day.