Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum to botanists) is a frost-tender annual to perennial herb grown commercially all over the world for fresh, dried, and processed use. Among North American consumers of fresh herbs, sweet basil ranks number one in popularity.
BASIL IN HISTORY
The word basil comes from the Greek basileus, “people’s leader,” possibly because the herb was once used by ancient royalty; the modern French term herbe royale and the Italian erba royale (both of which mean “royal herb”), and the German Königskraut (“king’s herb”) reflect this same tradition.
The ancient Greek writer Dioskurides knew sweet basil as okimon (“fragrant [plant]“), from which botanists derive the the Latin genus name Ocimum. The genus Ocimum is most diverse in Africa, so that is probably where basil first appeared. It eventually spread to India, where it was probably first taken into gardens, and from there (according to Tom Stobart in his book Herbs, Spices, and Flavourings) it made its way to the Middle East and finally, overland, to Europe.
Theophrastus, around 300 B.C.E., mentions basil in his Enquiry Into Plants. He writes, “Most herbs are watered in early morning or at evening, so that they may not be dried up; but basil is watered even at noon, for it is said that it grows more quickly if it is watered at first with warm water.” (This may well be true, for basil is a tropical plant, like the tomato with which it has such a glorious affinity.)
The ancient Greeks differed as to basil’s value. Some thought that scorpions generated from basil’s roots (possibly a corruption of an African belief that basil protects against scorpions); others, that smelling basil too often would breed scorpions in the brain (!). According to the Roman writer Pliny, the ancient Romans believed that the more basil is cursed when you are planting it, the better its seeds will sprout and the seedlings prosper.
It is said that sweet basil was introduced to French cooking by Catherine de Medici when she married the French King Henri II in 1533. Sweet basil arrived in Britain, probably from France, in the same century. “The most part,” writes William Turner in his 1568 Herbal, “use Basil and eat it with oyle and [vine]gare [as] sauce for a fowl.” In Europe basil was prized as the traditional flavoring for turtle soup, and the leaves gave the famous London Fetter Lane sausages their savor. French cooks in the court of Louis XIV recommended the herb for use in soups, ragouts, and as the basis for the addictive, garlicky herb sauce pistou, known in southern Italy as pesto.
Seventeenth century British herbalists recommended sweet basil as an antidepressant “to procure a cheerfull and merry hearte” (Parkinson, Paradisus in Sole, Paradisus Terrestris, 1629). Perhaps for this reason Parkinson adds, “The ordinary Basill is in a manner wholly spent to make sweete, or washing waters, among other sweet herbs, yet sometimes it is put into nosegays.” In late medieval Italy basil was considered a symbol of fertility, and Boccaccio, the author of The Decameron, tells the rather gruesome
story of Lisabetta, who upon the tragic death of her lover at the hands of her brothers, disinterred his head, reburied it in a big garden pot, filled the pot with soil, and planted basil on top of it, which she watered with her tears. (Do not try this at home.) In the end, her cruel brothers took the pot away from her, and poor Lisabetta died of a broken heart.
In Romania, country folk believed that all a young man had to do to win a young woman’s affections was to give her a bunch of basil. Basil’s link to romance survives in an 1812 edition of Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, where it is observed that “Garden basil, if stroked, leaves a grateful smell on the hand, and … [the plant] receives fresh life from being touched by a fair lady.” Basil reached North America in the seventeenth century, and by 1806 — according to Bernard M’Mahon, plant procurer for Thomas Jefferson — the herb was already well-known in the young United States. But during the 19th Century the plant fell out of fashion, and for many years — until the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s popularized “foreign” Mediterranean and Asian cooking — most home gardeners in North America and Britain considered basil an exotic. In 1912 British herb enthusiast Lady Rosalind Northcote extolled basil’s virtues, lamenting, “Basil is too much neglected nowadays” (The Book of Herbs). According to Stobart, as late as 1970, the British Ministry of Agriculture assessed sweet basil as being “now of little or no importance” (Tom Stobart, Herbs, Spices, and Flavourings). Stobart adds, “In English and American markets basil as a fresh herb is nowadays very uncommon.” All that has changed!
A BOUQUET OF BASILS
All basils belong to the Deadnettle Family (Lamiaceae or Labiatae), which also gives us those herb garden staples rosemary, sage, mint, lavender, oregano, marjoram, savory, and thyme. The past twenty years has seen a delirious explosion of new sweet basil cultivars, differing from one another — sometimes slightly, sometimes vastly — in everything from plant habit, leaf size, and leaf color to flower color, aroma, and flavor. All possess white blossoms July to September unless otherwise noted, and all may be grown in full sun to part shade in well-drained soil that is not permitted to dry out. Here’s a brief survey of some of the most popular.
Ararat Basil (O. basilicum ‘Ararat’): Green leaves, marked purple, with a strong, sweet anise flavor.
Aroma 1 Basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Aroma 1′): High disease resistance, heavenly fragrance and flavor, plus late-flowering makes this a marvelous pesto variety.
Christmas Basil (O. basilicum ‘Christmas’): Deep green leaves and extra large showy purple blossoms, all with a unique fragrance and flavor reminiscent of sweet basil and rosemary.
Cinnamon Basil (O. basilicum ‘Cinnamon’), also known as Mexican Spice Basil, bears narrowish green leaves on 2 foot plants and pink flowers July to September. The leaves and flowers have a delicious spicy aroma and fragrance, which lend themselves well to pastas, salads, fruit cups, and potpourris. (See also Ocimum americanum under “Other Basil Species” below for another “spice basil”.)
Di Genova Basil (O. basilicum ‘Di Genova’): A 2-foot Sicilian strain bearing large, 4-inch, dark green, crumply leaves prized in pesto. May be the same as ‘Genovese Basil’ below.
Emily Basil (O. basilicum ‘Emily’): Compact, base-branching, 1-foot tall plants with fragrant, medium-sized, dark green oval leaves. Long-standing in 10-inch pots.
Fino Verde Basil (O. basilicum ‘Piccolo’) is a small-leaved, white-flowered basil with a particularly sweet aroma and flavor.
Genovese Basil (O. basilicum ‘Genovese Gigante’, pictured at right): To 2 feet, with large, extremely fragrant, mellowly clove-scented and -flavored dark green leaves that tend to curl under as the leaves get larger. Widely considered the primo pesto variety. From the Genoa region of Italy.
Green Ruffles Basil (O. basilicum ‘Green Ruffles’): To 2 feet tall, with large, serrated and quilted green leaves of excellent flavor. Leaves make delicious wraps for seafood, tofu, poultry, and tapas. Introduced by the Burpee Seed Company.
Italian Large Leaf Basil (O. basilicum ‘Italian Large Leaf’): Also known as ‘Sweet Italian Large Leaf Basil‘. Big, vigorous, 30″ tall by 12″ wide, slow-to-bolt plants bear very large, 4″ long leaves with an aroma and flavor that is sweeter and less clove-y than that of other varieties. Great choice for raising large quantities of leaves for intensive pesto making. Reputed to have insect repellent properties. This strain is much employed in the distinctive cuisine of Naples, Italy.
Lettuce-Leaf Basil (O. basilicum ‘Lettuce-leaf’, shown at left): To 2 feet, with very large green leaves scented of clove. Much used for bulk pesto-making, shredded in salads, and wrapping tofu and fish for steaming. (See Sweet Mammoth Basil below for another large-leaf basil strain.)
Marseillais Basil (O. basilicum ‘Marseillais’): Also listed as O. b. ‘Marseilles’. Compact, bushy, 1 foot tall plants bear hundreds of highly aromatic, medium size, 1.5″ long green leaves. ‘Marseillais’ means ‘of Marseilles,’ the city in France. Does beautifully in 10 inch pots.
Martina Genovese Basil (O. basilicum ‘Martina’): Compact 14″ tall bushes bear intensely aromatic and flavorful oval green leaves. Can be kept for long periods in 10-inch pots.
Napoletano Bolloso Basil (O. basilicum var. crispum): Also listed simply as ‘Napoletano’. Unusual basil with huge, light green, 5″ x 5″, intensely flavored and scented leaves, attractively blistered and puckered all over. Heirloom cultivar from the region around Naples, Italy. To around 2 feet tall.
Nufar Basil (O. basilicum ‘Nufar F1′): To 2 feet, with white summer flowers and wonderfully flavorful oval green leaves. A hybrid Genovese basil, highly resistant to fusarium wilt disease, ideal for pesto. (For another fusarium wilt resistant cultivar, see Plenty Basil below.)
Pesto Perpetuo Basil (O. x basilicum ‘Pesto Perpetuo’, pictured at left): A unique nonflowering sterile tender perennial hybrid, getting anywhere from 1 to 3 feet tall, bearing small, thin, cream and green variegated leaves with a sweet basil aroma and flavor. Exquisite in pesto, and unlike most other basils, it does not go to flower, so you can harvest its leaves over a very long periods. Best in light afternoon shade in NNM. Hardy to 32ºF. Said to be a variegated offshoot of ‘Aussie Sweetie’, a Greek columnar basil.
Plenty Basil (O. basilicum ‘Plenty’): Plenty of aromatic, flavorful green leaves all season from this extra-vigorous, fusarium wilt resistant cultivar! 18-24 inches tall.
Poppy Joe’s Basil (O. basilicum ‘Poppy Joe’s'): Vigorous, uniform, fusarium wilt resistant, 12-14″ high Genovese Basil strain bears highly perfumed, bright green leaves that make exquisite pesto.
San Remo Basil (O. basilicum ‘San Remo’): Unlike most basils, ‘San Remo’ is tolerant of the cool days of autumn, producing heavy crops of shiny dark green leaves over a very long season. Vigorous and highly disease resistant strain, growing 2 to 3 feet tall.
Summerlong Basil (O. basilicum ‘Summerlong’, pictured at left): Extremely slow-to-bolt, highly compact 10-inch tall French strain, with dense clusters of bright green, shining leaves produced all season. Recommended for containers and ornamental edgings.
Super Sweet Chen Basil (O. basilicum ‘Super Sweet Chen’): 12″ tall plants bear large, heavily crinkled, very flavorful leaves reputed to make superb pesto. Bolt resistant, too!
Sweet Mammoth Basil (O. basilicum ‘Sweet Mammoth’, pictured at left) gets 18 to 24″ tall, with big ruffled jagged leaves. It prefers semishade and is ideal for windowsill culture. It makes great pesto, salads, and substitute for lettuce in sandwiches.
Valentino Basil (O. basilicum ‘Valentino’) grows about a foot tall, producing vigorous, compact plants with large, especially delicious leaves all season.
Lemon Basil (O. basilicum ‘Citriodorum’): Possibly the same plant described by 17th century writer John Parkinson as Ocimum maximum Citratum and possessing “a very sweet scent, resembling a Citron pill.” The seeds of this basil were among the Cordial Spices named by medieval Arab authors “for the comforting of the heart in the trembling thereof and the expelling of Melancholy.”
Lime Basil (O. basilicum var. citriodorum ‘Lime’): 1′ plants bear smallish, tender green leaves with a refreshing citrus scent and flavor. There is also a lime-scented version of Ocimum americanum, which see below under “Other Basil Species.”
Mrs. Burns’s Basil (O. basilicum var. citriodorum ‘Mrs. Burns’): Lemon basils are not known for their vigor, but ‘Mrs. Burns’ is the exception. Growing to 20″ tall, she bears fresh green leaves of good size with a refreshing citrus-and-basil scent and flavor. The flowers, which are also lemon-scented, are a lovely pinkish-white. Popular for salads, fish, meat dishes, and fruit dishes, particularly among admirers of Asian cookery.
Sweet Dani Basil (O. basilicum var. citriodorum ‘Sweet Dani’): AAS Winner, 1998. Considered the best of the lemon-scented basils, developed by Jim Simon of Purdue University. 18-24″ tall plants bear light green leaves very high in citral, a citrus-scented essential oil. Says one source, “Like growing a field of lemon drops!”
Miniature, rounded bushlets with thin, small, richly scented leaves. Perfect for pots, edgings and windowboxes. Various forms are available, including a purple bush basil (see “PURPLE-LEAVED BASILS” below). Some named cultivars:
Ball Basil (O. b. var. minimum ‘Tufted’), to 2 feet tall, with purple flowers July to September.
Boxwood Basil (O. b. var. minimum ‘Boxwood’) forms a mound 10-12 inches tall and wide.
Finissimo Verde A Palla Basil (O. b. var. minimum ‘Finissimo Verde A Palla’): Italian strain. Perfect globe shape, 10 inches tall by 10 inches wide, furnishing numerous small, thin, strongly scented green leaves. Good in beds, borders, and window boxes.
Green Bouquet Basil (O. b. var. minimum ‘Green Bouquet’, pictured above left), gets 12-14 inches tall.
Minette Basil (O. b. var. minimum ‘Minette’): Small leaves, nice flavor; about 1′ tall.
Purple Bush Basil (O. basilicum var. minimum ‘Purple Bush’): Small, intensely scented and flavored, purple-green leaves on compact, bushlike plants. Great in pots; try with dwarf marigolds for an eye-catching windowbox combo!
Spicy Globe Basil (O. b. var. minimum ‘Spicy Globe’): Vigorous, uniform, densely leafy plants grow 6-12″ tall by 6-12″ wide. Tiny leaves pack a big fragrance and flavor punch (the scent has been described as “a strong spicy aroma with hints of citrus and mint”). Rows of these plants make a marvelous annual herb garden border! The white flowers bloom at the ends of 3″-long stems. Introduced in 1985.
Amethyst Basil (O. basilicum ‘Amethyst’): Said to be the only purple-leaved Genovese-type basil. 16-20″ plants bear oval purple-black leaves with turned-down edges, sweetly fragrant and delicious. Bring on the purple pesto! ‘Amethyst Improved’ is similar.
Dark Opal Basil (O. basilicum ‘Purpurascens’) was one of the first purple to green-and-purple basils to hit the market in the 1950s. Bred by the University of Connecticut, Dark Opal has to a large extent been superceded by other violet-leaved basils, but it is still useful torn into salads and to scent and color salad vinegars. The pinkish flowers are nice in potpourri. The flavor has been described as slightly citrusy, with anise, spice and mint overtones.
Osmin Basil (O. ‘Osmin’) is a 15 to 24-inch hybrid basil from a German breeding program begun in 1987. It has purple stems and medium-sized, glossy, jagged-edged, slightly ruffled, heart-shaped, darkest purple leaves exquisitely scented and flavored of clove, vanilla, and anise. The pale lilac-mauve flowers show up nicely against the dark foliage. Said to be the most deeply colored of all the purple basil strains. Named for a character in Mozart’s opera, The Abduction From the Seraglio.
Purple Bush Basil (O. basilicum var. minimum ‘Purple Bush’): Small, intensely scented and flavored, purple-green leaves on compact, bushlike plants. Great in pots (try with dwarf marigolds for an eye-catching windowbox combo)!
Purple Ruffles Basil (O. basilicum ‘Purple Ruffles’, pictured at left): One of the most beautiful of all basils. Two-foot plants sport large, deeply crinkled leaves of rich dark violet and pink flowers July to September. A wonderful ornamental when well-grown in rich, sandy or well-drained soil, and of course good for all culinary uses.
Red Lettuce-Leaved Basil (O. basilicum cv.): Huge deep red ruffled leaves, great for herb wraps. Similar to ‘Purple Ruffles’ above.
Red Rubin Basil (O. basilicum ‘Red Rubin’) gets about 2 feet tall. It bears beautiful rich purple leaves and pretty lavender flowers, all with a distinct spicy flavor. Stays dark purple longer than many purple leaved varieties, even when leaves are harvested and dried.
Rick’s Aussie Purple Basil (O. basilicum ‘Rick’s Aussie Purple’): 2′ tall x 1′ wide. Light green, 2.5″ long x 1″ wide light green, deeply serrated leaves flushed dark purple. Sweetly anise-scented. Introduced by Tom DeBaggion in 1999.
Cardinal Basil (O. ‘Cardinal’, pictured at left) represents a growing trend among basil breeders: deliberately creating basil cultivars for ornament as well as cooking. Growing 24-30 inches tall, ‘Cardinal‘ has strongly branching burgundy stems and bright green, clove-scented leaves, particularly useful in Asian cookery. But the real innovation here is the flowers: big, celosia-like clusters of purple-bracted pink blossoms.
Lesbos Basil (O. ‘Lesbos’): Named for the Greek island of Lesbos, this highly unusual basil — also called Columnar Basil and Greek Basil — has a narrowish, spirelike growth habit to 40″ high. The leaves are exquisitely spicy, with a floral, citrusy quality that suits them for a wide range of culinary and aromatic uses.
Magical Michael Basil (O. ‘Magical Michael’): Compact, 16″ tall, of uniform habit, bearing fruity-tasting olive green leaves set off by reddish veins and stems. Great for cooking, and Michael’s thick clusters of long-lasting, purple-bracted pinkish blossoms make him highly decorative, too. This variety was a 2002 All-America Selection.
Spicy Saber Basil (O. ‘Spicy Saber’, pictured at right): Introduced by the Burpee Seed Company, this highly unusual compact 14-inch tall cultivar bears unique, serrated, swordlike green leaves with a delicious spicy flavor. Recommended for Asian dishes. Stays bushy and productive till fall!
Thai Basil (O. basilicum var. thyrsiflorum) is called horapa or horabha in Thailand and jiu-ceng-ta in Chinese. It is sometimes confused in the literature with hairy basil (O. americanum, see below under EXOTIC BASILS). Its slightly downy, green and purple-flushed leaves have a lemony fragrance and an unusual spicy flavor variously described as licorice-like, very intense and sweet, or a combination of cloves and mint. Standard strains get about 2 feet tall, with a somewhat pyramidal shape, silky slimmish green leaves, and lavender flowers July to September. Thai Basil ‘Siam Queen’ is a compact 14-incher with lovely purple flowers. Thai basils are equally useful in the ornamental garden and in the kitchen, where they make wonderful additions to curries, stir-fries, chicken salad, grilled fish and poultry dishes, with tomato-based dishes like pizza and lasagna, and as garnishes.
OTHER BASIL SPECIES
The genus Ocimum contains not only the sweet basils (Ocimum basilicum), but also a number of other basil species prized over the centuries in cooking, medicine, perfumery, folklore, and religious ritual.
Ocimum americanum: The Hairy Basil or Hoary Basil (“hoary” means “whitened as with frost”) grows from tropical West Africa to India and the East Indies, and has been introduced to the Americas. It grows 1-2 feet tall and bears furry 1-2 inch long leaves scented of thyme, camphor, lemon, or spice. Its white to pale mauve blossoms are borne July to September, and mature into decorative, red-tinged seedpod clusters. Hairy basil is called bai manglak in Thailand, where it is used in salads and as a garnish. The lemon-scented types (sometimes called Lemon Basil, see photo at left) are particularly prized, their fragrance said to be particularly pure and their flavor particularly sweet with a peppery undertone.
In Indonesia, where it is popular, O. americanum is known as kemangi, and much used in cooking. Its shredded flowers and leaves are good raw in salads or to flavor fried fish, poultry dishes, tea, vegetable dishes, herb vinegars, and potpourri. There are variants: Lime Basil (O. americanum ‘Lime’), said to be scented of lime (not to be confused with O. basilicum var. citriodorum ‘Lime’ above); and Spice Basil, O. americanum ‘Spice’, growing to 2 feet tall, with spice scented and flavored leaves and light lavender blossoms borne July to September.
Ocimum gratissimum: the Indian Tree Basil or Clove Basil is native to tropical Africa and Asia. It is a much-branched tender perennial with woody stems to 2 feet tall and lavender blossoms July to September. Its leaves and flowers are distinctly scented and flavored of cloves.
Ocimum kilimandscharicum: The Camphor Basil, another tender perennial subshrub, grows to 3 feet tall, with white flowers July to September. African Blue Basil (Ocimum ‘African Blue’) is an ornamental hybrid of the camphor and sweet basils, with green leaves and stems beautifully flushed bluish-purple. It grows 2 to 4 feet tall and wide, bearing decorative, sterile purple blossoms July to frost. The blossoms, which are highly attractive to bees, have been used in salads, pasta, and frozen into ice cubes added to ginger ale, champagne, and white wine spritzers. Very drought tolerant for a basil, African Blue does well in containers. Plant in full sun to part shade.
Ocimum selloi: Pepper Basil was first collected around Chiapas, México near the Guatemalan border by botanist Dennis E. Breedlove, A tender perennial species growing to about 30 inches tall, O. selloi looks a lot like a chile pepper (Capsicum annuum) plant, with serrated, long, deep forest green leaves that smell and taste like a cross between common basil and green bell peppers! The flowers are pink with reddish bracts. Pepper Basil prefers partial shade (leaves grown in full sun get so tough they can’t be eaten), regular moisture, and, as a mountain species, is slightly more cold tolerant than O. basilicum is. Plants develop the best flavor during the summer months. The leaves are reported tasty shredded into corn chowder, cabbage dishes, scrambled eggs, and cream cheese cracker spreads.
Ocimum tenuiflorum: In India, Holy Basil or Tulsi — formerly known as Ocimum sanctum — has since ancient times been considered sacred to the god Vishnu and His wives. According to Stobart, when the British invaded India in the nineteenth century, and set up the British court system there, they found that using a Bible upon which to swear oaths of truthfulness was a meaningless symbol in that mostly non-Christian country. One of the symbolic equivalents the British hit upon was to have Hindu witnesses swear on holy basil instead. Holy basil comes in a green-leaved form (O. tenuiflorum) and a lovely purple-leaved variant (O. tenuiflorum ‘Purple Tulsi’).
BASIL IN COOKING & FOLK MEDICINE
Processing Basil Leaves: Freshly cut basil stems should not be refrigerated or they will develop dark brown spots. Treat them as you would cut flowers, placing them in water and recutting the stems and renewing the water daily. This way the sprigs will keep for 3 to 6 days.
To freeze fresh basil leaves, rinse them under lukewarm water and pat them gently dry between layers of paper or fabric toweling. (Take care not to bruise the leaves.) On a baking sheet, lay the leaves in a single layer; keep the individual leaves at least 1/4 inch apart. Freeze the sheet for 1 hour. Place the frozen leaves into small freezer bags; gently press out the air, and seal the bags. Keep in the freezer, removing leaves as needed, taking care always to reseal the bags and return them to the freezer immediately. Leaves frozen in this way keep for 1 year.
Basil Tea For Travel Sickness: In Herbs About the House, Philippa Back recommends sweet basil infusion as a travel sickness and nausea preventative. Over 1 ounce (1/8th of a cup) finely chopped sweet basil (or cinnamon basil) leaves pour 20 ounces boiling water. Cover the steeping herbs and leave them for 5 minutes. Strain and pour the tea into a nonmetal lidded container (you may add a touch of honey or agave nectar sweetener if you like). Place the container into the refrigerator till cold. Just before setting out on your journey, drink a small (4 to 6 ounce) glassful of the tea.
You may begin harvesting leaves from basil plants as soon as the plants reach 6 inches tall. Never remove more than 1/4 of a given plant’s leaves at a time, so the plant has plenty of leaves left for photosynthesis. If growing basil for the leaves, pinch off the flower-spikes as they appear. Once basils flower, their leaves begin to lose their flavor.
SOURCES FOR THIS ARTICLE
- Back, Philippa. Herbs About the House. (London, England: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., 1977. ISBN 0-232-51389-9).
- Betts, Kay. “Resembling A Citron Pill.” The Herbarist: A Publication of The Herb Society of America, No. 19, 1953.
- Northcote, Lady Rosalind. The Book of Herbs, Handbooks of Practical Gardening Series, Second Edition. (London & New York: John Lane/The Bodley Head, Publishers, 1902.)
- Stobart, Tom. Herbs, Spices, and Flavourings (Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1977.)