Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is truly indispensible in the kitchen. Whether flavoring soups, stews, and egg dishes, sprinkled on tomatoes to zip up a sandwich, or as the main ingredient of pesto sauce to provide a mouth-watering accompaniment to pasta, fish, and chicken, basil is the king of savory herbs.
In the garden, basil is a fine ornamental and has a long history as a companion plant; it's supposed to improve the growth and flavor of tomatoes and help repel flying insects.
Cultivated since antiquity, basil originated in India, where it was regarded as a sacred herb. The name comes from the Greek basileus meaning 'king.' In India, Hindus believed that if a leaf of basil was buried with them, it would get them into heaven. Basil was also sacred to the Gods Krishna, and Vishnu and is still found growing around temples. In Italy, basil was used as a signal for love; a pot of basil placed on the balcony meant that a woman was ready for her suitor to arrive. In England, basil was used to ward off insects and evil spirits.
Medically, basil has been used as a sedative, an expectorant, and a laxative but it is not used much in herbal preparations today. Still, adding basil leaves to food is an aid to digestion.
Folklore holds that you have to curse the ground as you sow basil for it to grow well, but you can forego the cussing and still grow basil successfully. Its main requirements are sun and heat. Start basil seed indoors six weeks before the last frost date and don't transplant or set out until the ground is thoroughly warm. Basil won't tolerate cold! Pinch off the growing tips to make the plants bushier and remove all flower spikes to prolong your harvest.
Growing your own basil gives you a wonderful opportunity to experiment with different flavors. Many people insist that Genovese basil, an Italian strain which has dark green leaves up to 2 inches long, is the type you must use for superior pesto; others favor Greek basils, such as 'Spicy Globe' and 'Green Bouquet'. For a different flavor, you might want to try lemon, cinnamon or licorice basil. All are cultivars of Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum), an annual with fragrant leaves which grows up to 2 feet tall.
Harvesting and Storing Basil
Harvest basil by cutting off the growing tips every few weeks and taking the leaves, (leaving four sets of true leaves on the plant). Always pick the leaves from the top to encourage new growth. Wash and pat the leaves dry. Use immediately, or store by freezing; basil doesn't keep well in the fridge. If you must refrigerate it, put the stems of fresh-picked basil in a glass of water, and cover with a plastic bag; it will keep for about a week.
For pesto-making purposes, once I've washed the leaves and patted them dry, I simply put them into a freezer bag, date it, and pop it into the freezer. Then I can enjoy the taste of summer all season long. If I make too much pesto, (a rare event), it too can be frozen and thawed for use later on.
The most commonly recommended method for storing basil is to infuse the leaves in olive oil or vinegar. Drying basil leaves is not recommended as the leaves tend to brown. If you're determined to try this, don't use the oven or a microwave; basil releases its essential oils at 85 to 90 degrees F.
Basil is one of the few herbs whose flavor increases when it's cooked, so when you're using fresh leaves in your favorite dishes, always make sure you add them at the very end of the cooking process. Use fresh basil leaves for maximum flavor in tomato sauces, salads, vinegars, and eggs, and on lamb, fish, and poultry. Basil combines beautifully with garlic, is a zesty topping for pizza, and the perfect flavoring for pasta. No wonder basil is considered "the king of the savory herbs"!
Arnoldsen, Keppy and Voisin, Aimée (under the guidance of Dr. Michael Orzolek). (1996). Directory of herbs (May 30, 2000).
McVicar, Jekka. (1994). Jekka's complete herb book. Vancouver, B.C.: Raincoast Books. Michalak, Patricia S. (1993).
Rodale's successful organic gardening: herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press. Rindels, Sherry (1997). Basil. In Horticulture and Home Pest News (May 30, 2000).
Wilson, Ann Marie. (1999). Beautiful basils (May 30, 2000).
About the Author Susan Ward is an ex-English Teacher who now earns her living by writing. She is author of the column "Gardening in B.C." at Suite 101.