Beautiful Basils

To many gardeners, basil is the king of herbs.  Basil can play many roles while basking in the sun.  Some varieties are highly ornamental in the summer landscape, branches of basil can add interest to bouquets, and, of course, basil is essential in the kitchen.  Hot summer days become more bearable when the cook is able to pluck fresh basil and use it in pestos, herbal vinegars, vegetable dishes and, most heavenly of all, nestle the leaves between slices of fresh bread along with red, ripe tomatoes and sweet onion slices.

Members of the mint family, basils are native to India, Africa and Asia but have a long, rich history of legend and use worldwide.  In Italy, a pot of basil placed on a balcony signaled that a woman was ready to receive suitors.  Basil is often considered a symbol of love, but in Flora's Dictionary author Kathryn Gips cautions that those who dabble with the language of flowers must be sure the message's recipient is on the same wave length as the sender...Basil may also be used as an emblem of hatred for an enemy.  In India holy basil is considered a sacred herb and at one time was used to protect the dead from evil.  It is still found growing around temples.

Early Greeks and Romans believed that a good basil crop would only develop if the gardener shouted and cursed while sowing the seeds.  In Austin, Tx this is not necessary, although it may happen if fire ants have invaded the newly prepared basil bed.  Basil will thrive in a sunny, well draining location.  An evenly moist soil will ensure lush growth.  The seeds will sprout easily and quickly when the days grow warm and sunny.  Unfortunately, snails love basil even more than cooks do.  If this is a problem, use large transplants or protect the seedlings with rings of diatomaceous earth, sharp egg shells or the wonderful copper striping commercially available for this purpose.  Pinch the basil frequently to encourage leaf growth and prevent early flowering.  The flavor seems to change as blossoms appear.  You can let a few flower stalks go to seed for collection for next year's crop, but be aware that basil varieties are promiscuous and several types of basil grown together may yield babies unlike any of the parents--but who knows, it could be an amazing new taste in the garden!  Basil cuttings also root easily in potting mix or water.

Recently, fusarium wilt of basil has appeared in the United States.  The pathogen, Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. basilicum, is specific to basil and will not harm tomatoes, eggplants or peppers, although it might be prudent to avoid planting other mint (Lamiaceae) family members in infected soil.  An infected plant will usually show stunted growth before wilting.  Later disease stages feature brown cankers.  If your basil suddenly wilts and dies without an apparent cause, be concerned, but don't forget that most basils will turn black at the mere whisper of a 40 degree night.  An article about fusarium wilt appears in the Herb Society of America's 1997 issue of The Herbarist.

Basil is best used fresh.  Small leafed varieties can be grown in a pot on a sunny windowsill during the winter.  To preserve summer's flavor for winter make plenty of pesto and freeze it.  Chunks of pesto are easily thawed for use on pasta or to flavor sauces.  Basil and oil puree may also be frozen for winter use.  Use two cups of dry, packed basil leaves and 1/4 to 1/2 cup of olive or canola oil.  If basil must be dried, Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay (authors of Southern Herb Growing) recommend placing the leaves on a tray or screen and drying at room temperature.  The leaves should be stirred twice a day.  Covering them with a sheet of newspaper will help retain their color.  Basil releases it's essential oils at 85 to 90 degrees so it should not be dried in the oven or microwave.

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Sweet Basil         Ocimum basilicum                                                                                     TAMPhoto(45k)
Sweet basil is a generic term for many unnamed varieties of basil.  They tend to be large leafed and grow from 24 to 36 inches tall.  They have wonderful fragrance and are excellent for culinary purposes.

Lemon Basil         Ocimum xcitriodorum
A wonderful lemony flavored basil that is excellent in teas, pestos and chicken dishes.  It is one of many hybrids of O. basilicum and O. americanum.  It grows 18 to 24 inches tall and has light green pointed leaves.  Lemon basil tends to be early flowering so be especially vigilant about pinching to encourage branching and leaf production.  Lemon basil has been known to self-seed in Austin, Tx.

Aussie Sweetie         Ocimum xcitriodorum 'Aussie Sweetie'
Also believed to be a hybrid of O. basilicum and O. americanum this plant has an attractive, upright bush form growing to 30 inches.  Aussie Sweetie is very, very slow to flower.  The 1 inch leaves are bright green and have good flavor.  It is very similar to, or possibly the same as the basil known as  'Lesbos' or 'Greek Column'.  'Aussie Sweetie' is the name commonly sold in the Austin, Texas area.  There is an extemely attractive variegated form called 'Pesto Perpetuo'.  Despite the tempting name, this white and green plant is more useful as an ornamental than in the kitchen.

Cinnamon Basil         Ocimum 'Cinnamon'                                              AMWPhoto(17k)
A very attractive basil with a strong taste of cinnamon combined with other basil flavors.  The plant will grow to 30 inches and has beautiful whorls of purple that stand above the glossy, green foliage.  It is excellent in bouquets, teas and fruit dishes.  For an interesting twist, add the chopped leaves to your favorite meat loaf recipe.

Anise Basil                 Ocimum 'Anise'
This is a somewhat lanky growing basil with a sweet licorice flavor.  It grows to 30 inches and has pinkish whorls of flowers.  It is also called Licorice Basil

Lettuce Leaf Basil         Ocimum basilicum 'Crispum'
An attractive basil with excellent flavor.  Growing to 24 inches in height, lettuce leaf basil has large, crinkled bright green leaves.

Siam Queen Basil         Ocimum basilicum 'True Thai'  (O.b. 'Siam Queen)
A 1997 All American Selection, this is a basil with attractive whorls or purple flowers arranged in a "blocky" fashion on the plant.  It grows to 24 inches tall and looks especially nice when placed in the garden alongside pink blossomed plants.  It has a strong, spicy, licorice aroma.  The plant seems to benefit from heavy pinching while young.

Opal Basil                        Ocimum 'Dark Opal'
Purple Ruffles Basil       Ocimum 'Purple Ruffles'
Red Rubin Basil            Ocimum 'Red Rubin'
These purple leafed basils are attractive additions to the garden, have good flavor and add a beautiful rose color to herbal vinegar.  Research indicates that these colorful basils may have O. basilicum and O. forskolei in their genetic background.  Purple Ruffles has large crinkled leaves.  All may grow to 24 inches.  Of the three, Red Rubin holds its color the best, Opal Basil quickly reverts to greenish leaves in the Texas heat.

Fine Leaf Basil             Ocimum basilicum 'Minimum'
A small basil growing to 12 inches.  Also called Greek Basil, it has a splendid pungent flavor.  Because of its small size it is excellent grown as a border or in pots.

Spicy Globe Basil         Ocimum 'Spicy Globe'
Another hybrid of Ocimum basilicum and O. americanum this delightful tasting basil that is also highly ornamental.  Growing to 12 inches tall, the plant naturally forms a wonderful globe shape that is useful in flower beds and container gardening.  The small leaves are bright green.

African Blue Basil        Ocimum 'Dark Opal'
Believed to be a hybrid of  O. kilmandscharicum and an unknown basil, this is an attractive ornamental basil useful for bouquets and flower beds.  When in bloom it is highly attractive to bees.  The scent is strongly camphor-like.  It is a hybrid plant growing to 36 inches.  The leaves are purplish green.  It is more cold tolerant than other basils but is still winter killed during most Austin freezes.

Holy Basil                   Ocimum tenuiflorum
An attractive basil growing to 24 inches it may also be found listed as Ocimum sanctum.  It has smaller flowers than other basils.  Other basils are frequently mislabeled as 'Holy Basil' in the United States, let flower size help you in identifying the correct plant.  The medium sized leaves have a blunt tip.  The plant is quite bushy and is an good ornamental in the garden.  The pungent aroma is unique.  Holy Basil may reseed itself.  Also called Tulsi Basil.

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