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
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
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
* 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
* 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 --
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