Basil: Variations on a Favorite Herb
Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) has conquered the hearts of American cooks and gardeners, and it ranks right up there on lists of popular culinary kitchen herbs. Since this tender annual is easy to grow in sunny locations, you'll often see a pot of basil in a bright kitchen window.
Though sweet basil leaves enliven pasta, fish and vegetable dishes and serves as a mainstay in pesto, adventurous folk may want to try growing — and eating — variations on a theme. Over 60 varieties of basil herb plants have been identified that are equally easy to cultivate but exciting to try, so don't limit yourself this spring. Here are six new-to-you varieties to decorate your garden and wow your taste buds.
Peppery Mexican Cinnamon Basil
Some call it cinnamon basil, some say Mexican basil. This cultivar of sweet basil contains cinnamite, a compound giving basil leaves a concentrated, peppery cinnamon flavor and a powerful fragrance. Use these basil leaves for a spicy punch atop raw fruit, salads and soups. Blended with heavy cream, it makes a delightful topping for hot chocolate, pumpkin pie or brownies.
As a plant in your herb garden, Mexican cinnamon basil grows to 3 feet tall and wide. The pale violet stems produce thin green basil leaves and pretty lavender blossoms.
Mrs. Burns' Lemon Basil
Gardeners and chefs everywhere swear by Mrs. Burns' Lemon Basil, an heirloom variety of sweet basil discovered in New Mexico. The large basil leaves carry an intense flavor of citrus and a warm, delicious lemony taste. It has the reputation of being the absolute best lemon basil available today and is undeniably lip-puckering. Great in rice dishes, marinades and dressings.
Like most basils, Mrs. Burns is a warm weather annual, growing to 24 inches tall and wide. It matures within 60 days of planting. Leaves can grow from 2 or 3 inches across, making the plant a good value in the garden and the kitchen.
Siam Queen Thai Basil
Thai basil is quite different from classic basil and well worth an exploration. Rather than being a peppery condiment, Thai basil leaves add sweetness and licorice flavor to dishes.
The exotic 'Siam Queen' basil plant is a Thai basil and, true to form, adds a distinct but subtle licorice flavor. Even if you just rub a leaf between your fingers, you will experience a deep anise fragrance.
The plants grow to 24 inches tall, with extremely ornamental purple blossoms that carry a musky scent with touches of mint and cloves. Siam Queen Thai basil was awarded top honors in the All American Selections contest for vegetables.
Purple Dark Opal Basil
As every good cook knows, the presentation of food is almost as importance as the taste. The deep purple, mottled leaves of 'Dark Opal' basil give this cultivar top marks in the decorative appeal department. Its savory flavor earns raves, as well.
Developed by John Scarchuk and Joseph Lent at the University of Connecticut, purple Dark Opal basil has maroon-to-burgundy oval leaves, the color getting stronger as the plant matures. The chopped up basil leaves are stunning when scattered over a green salad or rice dish, adding a slight anise flavor with mild ginger undertones. It is delicious when used to flavor vinegar, and imparts its color as well.
Dark Opal is a compact herb, not taking up much room in the garden. It grows to only 10 inches tall, but offers glossy, deep purple leaves and lighter purple flowers.
Teo Spengler is a docent with the San Francisco Botanical Garden and a staff writer with Gardening Know How. She has written hundreds of gardening and plant articles for sites like eHow Gardening, Gardening Know How and Hunker. She holds a JD in law from U.C. Berkeley, an MA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing.