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Handsome basil perfumes a season, perks up gardens and flavors classic dishes

By Aenne Carver

Sweet Basil
Sweet Basil - Photo by Aenne Carver

No other herb characterizes the taste and smell of summer like basil. Heat loving, fast growing, great tasting, and good looking, what more could one herb offer?  You may love basil in Italian dishes, but this herb’s lore may surprise you.  Besides the ordinary sweet basil that everyone grows, there are wonderful variations to try.

The word basil and basilicum are derived from the Greek word basilikon, meaning “royal.”  In Hindu burial ceremonies, a basil leaf is placed on the dead to help open the gates of heaven.  In Egypt, leaves are scattered on graves so their scent can accompany the soul into the afterlife.

Ancient Romans believed that the scent of basil inspired true love.  Another ancient Roman belief was that gardeners should curse and insult basil for it to flourish.  Basil’s best flavor comes before it has bloomed, and gardeners hoped their harsh words would keep the plant from flowering.  Cursing has been omitted from modern seed packet’s instructions.

However, if you plant your basil too early, some harsh words may flow.  Demand for basil begins in February, and some nurseries accommodate this clamoring without warning buyers that the plants pine away in cool weather and are prone to mold and other diseases.  Basil is a tropical annual, originating from India, and requires sunny weather and warm soil.  Late spring or early summer is the best time to grow basil from seeds or to purchase transplants for a quick start.  Moreover, basil grows well in containers.

Each packet of seeds has information on exactly how to sow them.  Remember basil prefers full sun.  A few seed companies offer basil seed tape, which allows you to place the tape in any pattern desired.  These seed tapes also offer a mixture of different types of basil on a single roll. One advantage to using such tapes is the baby basil emerges perfectly spaced and thinning is not required.

However you plant your basil - seeds, tapes or transplants - remember to pinch off the flowers, because once seed sets, the plant begins to die.  As you remove the edible flowers, sprinkle them over salad, spaghetti or soup.

Most gardeners are familiar with sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), but there are more than a hundred different varieties of basil, each with unique flavors and growth habits.  There is even a basil resistant to the dreaded fusarium wilt; it is called ‘Basil Nufar Hybrid.’ 

Further expand your taste pleasure by looking for these uncommon basil varieties:  ‘Thai,’ ‘Cinnamon,’ lemon, lime, ‘Purple Ruffles,’ licorice, Genova profumatissima, and ‘Dark Opal.’  Many seed companies offer basil varieties already blended in one seed packet, enabling experimentation without growing enough plants for all of San Diego.

Thai Basil
Thai Basil in Bloom

One favorite basil is spicy globe, also sold under the Italian name, Fino Verde Compatto.  This basil has leaves so tiny that you can pull them off the stem and use them whole, thereby skipping tricky chopping.  Moreover, this well-behaved basil forms a petite ball shape without pruning.  The taste of this basil is more concentrated than sweet basil, and slightly minty.   Spicy globe basil is zesty in Italian dishes, but it might be overwhelming in pesto.

Try some new varieties of basil this year, and discover this herb’s delicious appeal.   By growing basil, with its long lineage of lore, you link your garden to ancient lives.  Fill your dish and garden with basil, the essence of summer.


Aenne Carver

Master Gardener
AENNE CARVER is a San Diego Natural History Museum instructor, garden writer and lecturer, floral designer, craft instructor and docent at the Carlsbad Flower Fields.  A "reformed paralegal," Aenne makes frequent appearances as a garden expert on local radio and television programs. She also designed and maintains a beautiful garden at her home in Lakeside, California. Visit her Web site at www.thethriftygardener.com