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The Royal Herb: Sweet Basil
by Ginny Stibolt
(A basil podcast)

Basil crop at mid-season.  Photo by Stibolt.
Basil in Ginny's summer herb garden.

Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), an easy-to-grow mainstay of most herb gardens, has been one of our favorites.  We use basil raw in salads and with tomatoes.  We also use it for extra flavor in soups and many other dishes.  And then there's pesto... oh, how we love pesto! We use pesto in salad dressings, dips, on pizza, and more.

Basil Background

Basil is in the mint family (Lamiaceae) as are so many other herbs.  In addition to basil, there is rosemary, sage, thyme, savory, lavender, lemon balm, oregano, sweet marjoram, summer savory, anise hyssop, plus the various mints.  (Parsley is in the carrot family (Apiaceae) in case you're thinking of Scarborough Fair, the old English folksong made popular by Simon and Garfunkle.) 

Before I looked it up, I would have guessed that basil was one of the herbs native to the Mediterranean region because it's so closely associated with Italian cooking.  I would have been wrong because basil is native to southern Asia-probably India, but we don't know for sure because it's been in cultivation for more than 5,000 years.

With such a long history, there is much lore surrounding basil.  The name basil is probably derived of the Greek word Basileus, which means king or royal.  Basil is sometimes called the kings' herb.  Christian legend says that basil grew around the tomb of Jesus and is sometimes used to prepare holy water.  Basil has been found buried with kings in Egyptian tombs.  The Hindus plant it near their temples.  Basil has been used medicinally in many ways from fighting stomach parasites to reducing fevers.  While basil is important in Mediterranean cuisine, it's also used in many Thai and Indian dishes.  

The reason for such popularity lies in basil's many essential oils that impart those distinctive odors and flavors.  There are a number of basil species and many cultivars of sweet basil and each one has a distinct smell and taste depending upon the concentrations of the oils.  Various cultivars have overtones of cloves, anise, pine, cinnamon, citronella, or citrus.

End of the Season

Basil is a tender annual that is killed by frost here in northern Florida.  Toward the end of the season, the plants become leggy and woody, but the bees and butterflies still love the flowers.  After the recent light frosts, the basil that had volunteered out in the vegetable garden away from the house withered.  Once the plant is killed by frost, it tastes terrible, but the plants in the herb garden near the house survived.

I was somewhat reluctant to take down the plants since the bees like the flowers so well, but I wanted some fresh pesto for Thanksgiving, so I finally made the last harvest for the season.

A bee works fall basil flowers. Photo by Stibolt

<< A bee hovers around what's left of the basil flowers at the end of the season.  Basil flowers arranged in a whorl around the flowering stem, square stems, and opposite leaves tell us that basil is in the mint family.  The flowers make an attractive and tasty addition to salads and other dishes.  See this link for more on Edible Flowers.

The variety we've grown for the past two years is the large leaf Italian (O. basilicum 'Genovese Gigante') The taste has some anise overtones, especially at the end of the season.  A couple of years ago I grew a dwarf variety with itty-bitty leaves.  While it had good flavor and plants were easier to manage, it was a disappointment because you grow basil for its leaves.

Throughout the season I've been using generous portions of basil in our salads, soups, and other cooking.  I've been pinching it back to keep it growing-when you cut off the top, two new branches sprout from the next node down the stem.  In the middle of the summer I made several batches of pesto and froze a few containers for use until next season.  As I've described before, my pesto recipe is more like a pesto sauce which differs from the traditional olive oil, pine nuts, and basil.  I substitute sunflower seeds for the pine nuts and add onion, horseradish, mayonnaise, Parmesan cheese, and more.  To have enough green stuff for my last pesto, I used not only the leaves, but the flowers, buds, and the green seed pods.  I skipped the dried seedpods for the pesto, but I harvested some of the seeds for next year.  Certainly more than a few seeds dropped on the ground in the last month or two and during the harvest.  Some of those self-sown seeds may grow on their own.

The last basil harvest of 2008.  Photo by Stibolt.

Last basil harvest of '08.  While there are some leaves, I also harvested the flowers, buds, and green seeds for pesto.  I did not harvest the dried seed pods or any stems that were at all woody.  >>

Support the Bees 

During the growing season, I picked off most of the flowering stems to keep the plants bushy, but I did let a few flowers remain because the bees and the butterflies love them.  Even after my final fall harvest, I left one plant with lots of flowers, but very few leaves, standing in the garden.  It's a little ugly, but we love watching the buzzyness just outside of our dining area.  The bees will have it for a while longer before a hard frost totally ends the season.

I still have some left over basil seeds stored in a plastic box in the refrigerator.  Next spring will be the third year on this package of seeds, so I'd expect a lower germination rate.  I'll purchase more seeds in case none sprout and maybe I'll try another variety like purple.  That would be fun.  If you've never grown herbs before, start with basil to really impress your family with its wonderful aroma and taste.


Ginny Stibolt would like to hear from readers who have suggestions and questions. After all, there are more than a few transplanted gardeners here in northeast Florida trying to figure out what works and what doesn't in planting zone 8/9. She's written a book, "Sustainable Gardening for Florida," to be published by University Press of Florida in 2009.

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