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The basil family

Versatile herb comes in many variations

For thousands of years, herbs have helped season, heal, beautify and perfume people in most civilizations. Basil, in different forms, is one of the most frequently grown herbs and has been used for all of the above-mentioned purposes. Today, as people seek alternatives to salt, herbs such as basil are becoming more popular in cooking.

Over the ages, basil has been known for both good and ill.

In the first century A.D., the Greek physician Dioscorides believed basil dulled the sight. Others claimed it bred scorpions and that scorpions appear beneath a pot where basil grew. This belief arose from the prevalence of scorpions in tropical regions of Asia and Africa, where basil originated, and their affinity for warm, dark places.

Gerard, in his English Herbal, made basil sound like the wonder drug of the 1600s. He said 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 cometh with melancholy and maketh a man merry and glad."

He said 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.

Gerard also 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.

I cannot vouch for any of these qualities, but I will vouch for its flavor and the beauty of the plants.

Basil was first grown in America in the mid-17th century as a medicinal herb. It did not become a common culinary herb until the 19th century, although it has long been important in Asian and African cuisines.

Basil has the familiar four-sided stems and whorled flowers of the mint family. But it is not as invasive as mints.

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." It is the fragrant "king of herbs," and is one of the most useful, and most used, of all herbs.

There are more than 30 different species of basil, but the most commonly grown are O. basilicum and its subspecies. Holy basil, O. sanctum, is considered a sacred herb in India and is used in religious ceremonies and planted as an ornamental around Hindu temples.

The range of basils available comes from variable natural fragrances and colors in the species basilicum. Plant breeders select for and improve on these traits.

The four basic types of garden basils are the familiar sweet green basil, dwarf green basil, purple leaf basil and scented leaf basil. Sweet basil grows 2 feet tall with large leaves 2-3 inches long and white flower spikes. It is the most widely grown. Other types include lettuce-leaf and Genovese basils with much larger leaves and 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 a bush of fine green basil that grows 10-12 inches high. The leaves are 1/2- inch long with white flowers. "Spicy Globe" and "Green Bouquet" are well-known dwarf types.

Purple-leaved basils (O. b. purpurescens) are very ornamental. "Dark Opal" (1962 AAS winner), "Purple Ruffles" (1987 AAS winner and my personal favorite) and "Red Rubin" (with solid purple leaves, an improved strain of "Dark Opal") are three popular varieties. These have ruffled, frilled, pungent, deeply cut leaves with deep pink to lavender-purple flowers.

Scented-leaf basils include lemon basil, ("Sweet Dani" 1998 AAS winner), cinnamon basil and anise basil.

In our area, sweet basil is an annual, dying with the first frost. Whether you sow seeds indoors or out, remember that basil does not like cold, or even cool, weather.

Sow seeds inside next week or about four to six weeks before the average last frost in spring. Basils do not need a long time to grow large enough to transplant to the garden. Wait to 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-to-grow herbs.

Most nurseries sell an excellent selection of basil plants. Look for compact bushy plants. If they are leggy, pinch them back to force more leaves and fewer stems. If you use a lot of basil for culinary purposes, sow seed every three to four weeks to harvest fresh leaves.

Basil grows best with at least six hours of direct sun daily for both garden or container plants. With less sun, the plants get "leggy." Herbs are not fussy about their soil, but they do best with light, fertile soil that has good drainage. Space plants 10-12 inches apart; dwarf basils, 8-10 inches apart; larger basils, such as "Sweet Dani," up to 20 inches apart.

Basil is as ornamental as it is edible. Grow it in a traditional herb garden, in the vegetable plot, in the center of a bed of red and green leaf lettuce or edging a bed of tomatoes. With its natural round shape, the dwarf basil "Spicy Globe" makes a wonderful edging for any type of garden: perennial, rose or herb.

Use both the green and purple-leaved varieties in flower borders. "Purple Ruffles" and others with colored leaves are very attractive with coral bells (Heuchera "Palace Purple"), Sedum "Vera Jameson," fountain grass (Pennisetum), dusty miller and blue Salvia farinacea. Both kinds grow well with dwarf or medium snapdragons, nicotiana, French marigolds and petunias.

Basils are excellent herbs for containers because they add attractive colors and textures to the plantings. They look good in pots or window boxes in full sun. A container by the back door or deck provides easy access for harvesting.

About the only pest you are likely to see are aphids. Wash them off with a strong spray of water or use insecticidal soap. The only common disease is fusarium wilt, a soil-borne fungus that causes yellowing of foliage and wilting of the entire plant. Avoid planting basil in the same place year after year. Avoid excessive watering and provide good drainage to reduce the spread of Fusarium wilt.

Grow basil for the flavor, the fragrance, the variable and attractive foliage or just because you like it, but please make it a part of your garden.

E-mail Larry at, subject: Larry Sagers.