The pungent aroma of basil evokes thoughts of Italian cuisine, but this herb is grown and enjoyed around the world for its flavorful and fragrant leaves.
Basil’s native range reaches from Central Africa to Southeast Asia. And this ancient herb has been cultivated for culinary and medicinal purposes for nearly 5000 years.
The most well-known variety of basil is Genovese, which is also sometimes referred to as sweet basil. But there at least 60 varieties that can be grown, each offering unique flavors, aromas and colors for the herb garden.
Some of the most popular cultivars of Ocimum basilicum include:
- Licorice basil: A flavorful variety of basil that grows into vibrant green plants with hints of purple on the foliage.
- Cinnamon basil: Sometimes called Mexican basil, this variety has a flavor reminiscent of cinnamon and narrow, dark green leaves with reddish-purple veins.
- Dark opal basil: With its deep purple leaves, this beautiful basil is both decorative and delicious.
- Lettuce leaf basil: A specialty type with very large, crinkly, bright green leaves.
- Globe basil: A perfect basil for growing in containers; short, compact and packed full of flavor.
- Thai basil: A spicy variety with small, narrow leaves, purple stems. This is the preferred basil for cooking as it can withstand extended cooking times better than other sweet basils.
In addition to these varietals, there are other basil species and hybrids available to choose from such as:
- African blue basil: A beautiful purple variety. One of the few perennial basil types.
- Lemon basil: This hybrid variety has a strong lemon scent and flavor popular is Asian cuisine.
- Holy Basil: Ocimum tenuifloru is an aromatic perennial wildly used for tea that is also cultivated for religious and medicinal purposes.
Basil in the Kitchen
The potent flavors and aroma of freshly harvested basil just screams summertime. This tasty herb is a must-have ingredient in tomato sauces, on pizza and, of course, in pesto. Make an easy pesto at home with just a handful of ingredients:
- 2 cups freshly harvested and washed basil leaves
- 1/3 cup toasted pine nuts (or substitute walnuts or sunflower seeds)
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 2-3 garlic cloves
- 1/4 -1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil (more oil will make a smother pesto)
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
Simply combine the basil, pine nuts, lemon juice, garlic and salt into your food processor.Run until well chopped and combined.
While the food processor is running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil until well combined and smooth. Add the Parmesan cheese if desired and pulse one last time to blend.
Basil in the Apothecary
Basil is a member of the mint family, Lamiaceae. Like other mint family relatives, it is useful to calm an upset stomach. Brewing a tea of basil leaves is the easiest way to utilize this herbal ally.
This brew is also useful for easing a sore throat or to relieve a headache.
Fresh basil leaves can also be crushed and applied to a bug bite or bee sting to reduce itching and swelling similar to how one would use plantain leaves.
Although typically considered a culinary herb, basil has a long history of use in the apothecary. You can learn more about using basil’s medicinal benefits in my book The Artisan Herbalist.
Basil is an easy to grow herb. Just remember that it is a warm season crop and will not tolerate frost or freezing temperatures.
You can start your seeds indoors and plant them out after any chance of frost, or direct seed your basil right in the garden. Overnight temperatures should consistently be above 50 degrees F before your place your plants outside.
Plant seeds only 1/4 inch deep and keep them moist until they germinate. Once your plants reach a height of around 6 inches, pinch off the uppermost branches of the plant to encourage branching, thus producing a bushier basil.
Be sure to pinch off flower buds as they appear to increase the life of your plant. But consider allowing some of your basil to go to seed if you’d like to try harvesting seeds for next year’s garden.
Give your plants plenty of sun and you’ll be guaranteed a flavorful harvest of basil leaves all summer long!