Basil is commonly known as a culinary herb, but there are many other uses. It is an annual, meaning it needs to be planted every year because a good frost will kill the plants. In the Mediterranean, it was thought that to grow basil in the garden was to have wisdom but that too much could cause craziness. In India basil was sacred to the gods Krishna and Vishnu and was thought to protect against evil. Basil will enhance tomatoes and peppers if grown near them.
Basil is from the mint family and looks a bit like mint. It has square, hairy stems with opposite leaves. The leaves are generally light to dark green, except the purple variety, and most cultivars have large leaves. The leaves are the edible part of the plant. Basil can grow up to about 2 feet tall. Flowers grow on spikes at the top of the leaves and are usually white.
Basil needs six to eight hours of sun per day. The soil must be well-drained or the roots will rot. Basil can be planted in the ground or in a pot. This is one herb that can be grown easily from seed. During March, plant several seeds in a pot and cover with a very thin layer of soil. Spray the surface of the soil with water and keep the soil moist by spraying every day. Put the pots in a sunny window or under grow lights. In one to two weeks, the seeds will germinate. After they get two true leaves, thin out the weak plants so the stronger ones have room to grow. After the plants have five leaves, it is time to plant outside, spacing each plant about one foot apart.
Keep weeds out of the garden so they are not mistaken for basil. Mulch the soil to ensure the roots get enough moisture. If basil is planted in a pot, fertilize with a water-soluble fertilizer monthly. If basil is planted in the ground, fertilize the middle of June. There should be no need to fertilize again. If the plants are next to tomatoes and peppers, just fertilize on the same schedule as the neighboring plants. Basil will droop in extreme heat, especially when in a pot. Just give a bit of water and the plants should perk up. In an extended dry period, water basil in a garden once or twice a week with a good soaking at the base of the plant. Watering with a sprinkler can injure the leaves. Pots should be watered every day because the moisture will evaporate quickly. Once flowers grow at the top of the leaves, pinch them off to encourage more growth of leaves.
There are more than 60 varieties of basil. Some can be used in cooking, others are primarily ornamental. The most common basil is called common basil or sweet basil. There are several flavored and scented basil varieties that taste and smell like their name. These would include lemon basil, anise basil, cinnamon basil and camphor basil. Holy basil is a favorite in India, and the leaves are very large with a slight clove flavor and scent. Globe basil grows in small round bushes with tiny little leaves but still has the scent and flavor of sweet basil. Purple ruffles basil has beautiful purple leaves and can be used in cooking but is more ornamental.
Basil should not be harvested in large quantities as taking more than half the plant at once will weaken it. Harvest the leaves at the top of the plant and go down to the bottom. Pick as you need the herb. When summer is over and there is a danger of frost, just clip off the whole plant because it will not survive the cold.
Basil can be air dried by tying bunches together and hanging in a dry area away from direct sunlight. Leaves will turn dark and sometimes even black, but the flavor will still be good. Drying in the microwave will stop the leaves from turning dark. Place leaves between paper towels so that they are not touching and microwave at 50 percent power for two minutes. If the leaves are not dry, microwave at one-minute intervals, checking each time. Store dried leaves in airtight containers. Basil can also be frozen. Just place leaves in a freezer bag and toss them in the freezer. When they thaw, they will be limp but are still good to use in soups and stews and other cooked recipes.
Basil is great in cooking. Make pesto with olive oil and pine nuts and spread on meats or pizza. Basil goes well with chicken and in soups and stews. It is a main ingredient in spaghetti sauce and is great with tomatoes and peppers. In the garden, basil repels white fly and aphids, keeping other plants safe from these pests. Basil has been used as a remedy for ages and the tea made from the leaves will help get rid of a headache or easy an upset stomach and help dispel gas. It lowers blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.