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Basil

Plant of the Week

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Basil
Latin: Ocimum basilicum

Picture of basil plants
Purple Ruffles and Sweet basil are used as fresh herbs in cookery and sometimes as ornamentals in the flower border.

To most meat-and-potato loving Americans herbs are novelties, perhaps occasionally grown in a corner of the garden but seldom actually eaten.

But this is changing, and basil is leading the way as more Americans develop appreciation for the use of fresh herbs in cookery.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a fast-growing, aromatic annual of the mint family that has been cultivated in India and parts of Africa and Asia for more than 5,000 years.

Depending on the cultivar, basils may be 6 inches tall with bushy habit and slender leaves to 2 feet tall. Big-leafed selections may have 3- to 4-inch-long leaves. Leaf color is usually green but purple leafed selections such as Dark Opal or Purple Ruffles are common.

More than 40 cultivars are currently listed from American seed dealers and many other novel types are found in other parts of the world. Sweet basil is a green-leafed form and among the most common with a strong scent of cloves. Most basil cultivars have the essential oil eugenol and share the clove-scented fragrance of sweet basil. Lemon basil contains the essential oil citral and smells of lemons. African blue basil has the scent of camphor. All are used in cookery but sweet basil is preferred in Italian cuisine.

Basil is fast-growing and produces its white, pink or purple blooms in terminal spikes. The first flowers open in around 95 days. As only the leaves are used in cooking, the blooming shoots are pinched off as soon as they appear to encourage continued vegetative growth.

Each country has its own traditions regarding basil. In India, it’s considered a sacred herb and offered in deference to several Hindu gods. In several locations, it was used as a floral symbol of love.

Even traditions for growing it were surrounded by superstitions. Pliny the Elder, the author who recorded agricultural happenings in the Roman Empire until he was killed in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., says farmers planted it with curses and ill words. Then, just for good measure, when it came up they walked on the seedlings and prayed it would die. All of this cursing and mistreatment was done in the belief that it would help the crop prosper. Go figure.

Basil is a warm-weather herb that abhors cold soil and cold weather. It can be seeded directly in the garden after the soil has warmed or transplants can be started inside and plants moved to the garden after the danger of frost. Space plants about 12 inches apart in the row or stick them in random locations around the vegetable garden or flower border. They can also be grown in pots on a warm, sunny windowsill during the winter.

When plants reach 6 inches tall, pinch to encourage branching.

Frequent harvesting of leaves and terminal shoots is the best way to keep basil growing throughout the summer. Because the essential oils of basil are highly volatile, cooks often recommend putting the basil leaves in at the end of the preparation time.

Leaves may be used fresh, immersed in olive oil or dried. Leaves stored in olive oil will blacken but retain their sweet flavor.

Dried leaves change flavor but are still called for in many recipes. For drying, collect bundles of 6-inch long shoots, wash the bundles and allow them to dry. Then, place the bundled stems upside down in a paper bag with the base of the stems sticking out. Close the bag with a rubber band and place the bag in an airy location that doesn’t exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit for two or three weeks. Don’t crumble the dried leaves until they are to be used as this lessens the flavor.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - July 11, 2008

 

The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.