Basil is an annual herb from the Lamiaceae family that is native to India and Iran, according to the 15th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Versatile in cooking, basil is available in several varieties---and because the leaf is heart-shaped, it is a symbol of love in Italy. Basil may be grown in most temperate climates and may be used not only as a kitchen herb, but also, according to the University of Vermont Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science, as a bath infusion, a tea to aid digestion or to combat fatigue.
Basil is available in many varieties, though the main distinctions are leaf size---small-leaf common basil, medium-leaf Italian basil and large-leaf lettuce basil. All varieties are pungent and sweet and may be used as fresh leaves or dried for later use.
Size and Look
Basil is a bushy plant that can grow to 2 feet tall. According to the 1997 "Sunset National Garden Book," heart-shaped leaves are shiny and, on common or sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), are about 1 to 2 inches long. Basil leaves are green or purple, and plants with green leaves will have white flower spikes, while plants with purple or variegated leaves have purple flower spikes.
When to Plant
Basil is often available as seedlings at major retailers and may be planted directly in the ground or in pots, preferably in mid-spring, after the last frost. If you plant seeds, try planting in early spring, and plant rows every two weeks for a continual harvest.
Basil grows in all USDA hardiness zones; plant after your area's last frost. Make sure your plant gets full sun with ample water, particularly when seedlings first sprout. Fertilize basil with a standard, complete vegetable fertilizer once during the growing season, and pinch flower spikes down to prevent seeding.
According to APinchOf.com, basil is referred to as "l'herbe royal"---the King of Herbs---by chefs. This versatile herb intensifies with cooking and may be used fresh or in dried form. Basil, which has a sweet odor and strong flavor, is popular in Italian cooking and, in particular, complements tomatoes. A key ingredient in pesto, also use basil to season meats, fish, vegetables, soups or as a garnish for salads.