All About Basil(s)

by Tusha Yakovleva


A bouquet of Basil Bouquet in Doug's hand. A bouquet of Basil Bouquet in Doug's hand.

Basil comes from a large, diverse, old family - Lamiaceae (the myriad of mint varieties are all relatives). Basil is native to India, but has had a very long history of growing in tropical and subtropical parts of the world, including Africa and South America. It made its way to the Northern Hemisphere first arriving in Greece, brought by Alexander the Great in the 300s BC, then making it as far north as England by the 1500s and over to America by the 1600s. The diversity of basil varieties is a great example of how food culture has influenced backyard plant breeding. In its 5,000 years of cultivation by humans, basil has managed to leave a strong culinary mark in kitchens throughout at least five continents.

There are seven basil varieties in our catalog alone, with uses and looks as different as the cuisines they are popular in.  Take a quick world tour with our basils:

Italy: Genovese Basil is perfect for pesto, a regional dish from Genoa in the Liguria region of northern Italy. Over time, Genovese gardeners and farmers selected this basil for the qualities they felt made the best pesto: large thick leaves, sturdy plants that withstand multiple harvests, deep green leaves that retain their color when crushed (pesto- to pound, to crush). Of course, this basil is still delicious for flavoring sandwiches, soups, and cooked dishes, but if you're into pesto and hoping to stock up your freezer with delicious paste to last through winter, go with the Genovese.

Italian Large Leaf Basil is similar to Genovese and is just as good for making classic Italian sauces. Italian Large Leaf plants grow between one-and-a-half to two feet tall, with fat three-to-four-inch basil leaves. The oils that make basil so amazingly fragrant are the same ones that will repel certain bad garden bugs--plant basil among your veggies to keep tomato hornworms and mites at bay. While you can't really go wrong with any preparation of basil, this variety is especially scrumptious when used simply, like in a lo-fi tomato slice sandwich or among tomatoes and fresh mozzarella (don't forget the balsamic vinegar) to make Caprese salad.

Vietnam: Cinnamon Basil actually tastes and smells like cinnamon. Both the spice and this variety of basil contain the chemical cinnamate, giving them their flavor. Cinnamon Basil has beautiful stems that are a dark purplish-red, topped with deep-green leaves that emit that warm, spicy scent. While basil usually enhances our favorite savory dishes, Cinnamon Basil's sweetness make it a perfect addition to sugared dishes (fried bananas, apple pie, even tea). Or simply grow it to enjoy its aroma and bad-bug-ousting properties.

Georgia: Dark Opal Basil is a bold basil that is richly purple in hue. It is terrific in an edible landscaping scheme, where its deep color adds a dark edge to any bed--or frames, beautifully, plants with brighter foliage. Its flavor, though not on par with the culinary basils, is still quite good, especially when the young leaves and shoots are harvested earlier in the season. In Georgia (the one in the Caucasus), it is traditional to serve a bouquet of fresh herbs with each meal for the diners to choose their own seasoning. Dark Opal basil is always a prominent centerpiece.

Northeast Africa: Lemon Basil’s citrusy notes make the flavors brighter and tangier. Can also be added to sweets, like muffins and breakfast breads for a bit of local lemon flavor.

tulsi_basil_copyIndia: Sacred Basil is considered a sacred plant in the Hindu religion. Known as the "Incomparable One," "Queen of Herbs," and "Elixir of Life," the scent, €”as well as preparations of the plant €”have been used to heal for centuries. Today's plant scientists have classified Sacred Basil as an "adaptogen", a substance that helps us adapt mentally and physically to stressful circumstances. Whether seen as a physical or spiritual aid, this plant adds a sense of balance and an extraordinary aroma to your garden.

Southeast Asia: Thai Basil’s anise-inflected flavor is irreplaceable in stir-fries and delicious on rice rolls and on veggies.

Basil in the Garden:

Growing: Since it hails from a warm climate, basil is not hardy in any area where frost is a possibility (like ours!), so it is grown throughout most of the United States as an annual. Basil can be started indoors up to one month before your last frost date, or it can be sown directly outside after last frost. If sowing directly, sow seeds close and then thin or transplant after the first true leaves appear.

Most basil varieties take one to two weeks to germinate. Basil likes water, but appreciates good drainage. A good indicator that your basil needs a drink is when the top few inches of the soil become dry. To have a steady supply of basil all season, sow in succession at one-month intervals throughout the season. Basil's tropical origins also reveal its love of heat and light, which means it will grow best in the hottest and sunniest part of the season.

Harvesting: For a continual harvest, basil needs to be continually harvested! If left alone, basil will grow a strong central stalk with few branches and will eventually form flowers at the tips of the stalks. Although this makes for a beautiful ornamental plant (which pollinators will love), it is not ideal for the table. By pruning basil often, the plant will grow bushy, continuing to produce lots of healthy and delicious leaves and won't redirect its energy into the flowers.
The pruning/harvesting routine can start as soon the plant reaches about a foot in height. Some recommend beginning as soon as three leaf pairs appear. For the first harvest, cut the entire plant right above its second pair of leaves. After that, prune back approximately every three weeks, leaving only the bottom third of the plant intact. Be sure to always cut above the baby leaves forming along the stems!

Let it bolt! Basil flowers are a hit among many pollinators and make a beautiful and fragrant cut flower. Moreover, flowers are an essential step toward seed saving. Consider letting a couple of your basil plants bloom to invite diversity into your garden ecosystem, bring beauty into your home, and expand your seed collection!

To save basil seeds, let flowers dry completely (till they are brittle and brown) on the stalk, then cut the full stalk and dry for a few more days in an airy place. Then, hit the dry stalks against the inner side of a bucket and watch the seeds gather at the bottom! Store in a cool, dark, and dry place and be sure to label them with the date and variety.