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Last Update 08/07/11

Can you imagine a garden without basil?...

Basil in the Garden  

Growing basil in containers

Basil in bloom

Basil leaves

Impossible! Its familiar fragrance, easy care, and many uses make it indispensable in herb, ornamental, and container gardens -- and, of course, in the kitchen.

A Sense of History

Basil has been known and grown since ancient times. According to Gerard in his Herbal published in England in the 1600s, the smell of basil was "good for the heart and for the head." The seeds "cureth the infirmities of the heart and taketh away the sorrow which commeth with melancholy and maketh a man merry and glad." Gerard also advised that the juice of the plant was good against headaches, if it were drunk with wine, and was useful in clearing up diseases of the eye.

Back in the first century AD, however, the Greek physician Dioscorides believed basil dulled the sight and produced "wind." Others claimed it bred scorpions and that scorpions would be found beneath a pot where basil grew -- a belief that arose, perhaps, from the prevalence of scorpions in some of the tropical regions of Asia and Africa, where basil originated, and their predilection for warm, dark places. Gerard wrote that those who were stung by a scorpion would feel no pain if they had eaten basil. Culpepper, a contemporary of Gerard, suggested in his Herbal that basil would draw out the poison of venomous beasts, wasps or hornets. Today, herbalists claim it helps to ease flatulence and abdominal pains if taken as an infusion.

Basil made its way to Europe by the Middle Ages and to England and America in the mid-17th century, where it was used mainly medicinally. It was not until the 19th century that basil became the ever-present component of herb gardens that it is today. Basil is also very important in Asia and Asian cuisines.

The range of basils available is the result of the variability of the species, basilicum. The species contains a natural diversity of fragrances and colors; plant breeders have selected for and improved on these different traits.

What's In A Name?

A member of the mint family (Labiatae), as so many herbs are, basils have the familiar four-sided stems and whorled flowers of that family; they are not, however, in the least invasive, as mints can be. The genus name of sweet basil, Ocimum, is from a Greek verb that means "to be fragrant." The species name, basilicum, comes from the Greek basileus, which means "king or prince." Basil is often referred to as the "king of herbs," and no wonder -- it is one of the most useful, and most used, of all herbs.
 


In frost-free climates, sweet basil may act as a perennial, but in most areas of the country, it is an annual, dying at the first touch of frost. There are more than 30 different species of basil, but the most commonly grown are O. basilicum and its subspecies.

Holy basil, O. sanctum (also known as O. tenuiflorum) is a sacred herb in India, where it is used in religious ceremonies and planted around Hindu temples; with its pinkish purple flowers, it is most often planted as an ornamental.

The four basic types of garden basils are the familiar sweet green basil, dwarf green basil, purple-leaved basil, and scented leaf basil. Sweet basil (O. basilicum) grows about 2 feet tall. It has rather large leaves, 2-3 inches long, and produces white flower spikes. It is the most widely grown. Its "cousins" include lettuce-leaf and Genovese basils -- varieties with much larger leaves -- as well as the spicy Thai basil, 'Siam Queen' (1997 All-America Selections winner), an improved tropical basil with an intense fragrance and flavor.

Dwarf basil (O. b. 'Minimum') is also known as bush or fine green basil. Its compact growth reaches 10-12 inches high. The leaves are small, about 1/2 inch long, and flowers are white. 'Spicy Globe' and 'Green Bouquet' are well-known dwarf types; the former is aptly named because the plants grow naturally into rounded, globe shapes.

Purple-leaved basils (O. b. purpurescens) are very ornamental. 'Dark Opal' (1962 All-America Selections winner), 'Purple Ruffles' (1987 AAS winner) and 'Red Rubin' (with solid purple leaves, an improved strain of 'Dark Opal') are three of the most popular varieties. These basils tend to have ruffled, frilled, or deeply cut leaves, which are very pungent; they produce deep pink to lavender-purple flowers.

Scented-leaf basils bring additional aromas to the basic clove-anise of sweet basil. Lemon basil (O. americanum, O. basilicum var. citriodorum) has a very distinct lemon flavor, especially in the newest 'Sweet Dani' (1998 AAS winner). The leaves are grayish green, the flowers white. The leaves of cinnamon basil have a spicy cinnamon flavor; flowers are deep pink with purple bracts. Anise basil has a flavor similar to licorice; its flowers are slightly purplish.

Growing From Seed

Whether you sow seeds indoors or out, remember that basil does not like cold, or even cool, weather. Sow the seeds outdoors when day and night temperatures reach about 55 to 60 degrees. When sown or transplanted at the right time, basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow successfully.

 


Starting Basil Indoors

Plan to sow seeds 4 to 6 weeks before the date of your average last frost in spring. Basils do not need a long time to grow large enough to transplant to the garden.

* Fill a shallow container, or flat, or individual 2- to 21/4-inch pots with a commercial seed-starting mix. Moisten the mix and let it drain.

* Sow the seeds in rows in a flat or two to three seeds per pot. Cover the seeds with about 1/4 inch of the mix. Press the mix down lightly and spritz the surface with water to moisten it and settle the seeds.

* To keep the mix from drying out while the seeds are germinating, cover the containers with sheets of clear plastic wrap, or place each in a plastic bag and close it with a twist-tie.

* Set the containers in a warm location; the growing medium should be at about 70-75 degrees F (21-23 degrees C). Seedlings will emerge in 4 to 7 days. When they do, remove the plastic covering and place the containers in bright light or direct sun in a south-facing window or a fluorescent light garden. Give the containers a quarter turn every few days so the plants grow straight instead of leaning towards the light source.

* Keep the mix evenly moist by watering from the bottom: Set the containers in a sink filled with a couple of inches of water until beads of moisture appear on the surface. A liquid fertilizer at one half the recommended rate can be given to seedlings to promote healthy plants.

* When the seedlings are about 2 inches tall and have at least two pairs of true leaves, transplant those in flats to individual pots. Thin those started in small pots to one per pot by snipping off all but the strongest looking one with a scissors. It is not necessary to transplant purple-leaved basils, such as 'Dark Opal' and 'Purple Ruffles', if you sow them about 1/2-1 inch apart.

* If young plants become tall and spindly, the growing tip can be pinched to encourage branching and compact growth. Some of the smaller basils, such as 'Spicy Globe', have a naturally branching habit and do not need to be pinched.

Read More -- Part 2

Special thanks to Eleanore Lewis as the author of this article. Thanks also go to the two Basil experts who reviewed this text before publication. Renee Shepherd, Renee's Garden and James Simon, Rutgers University greatly assisted in providing accurate information.

Source: National Garden Bureau

 

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