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Basil: The King of Herbs

I was bundled up this morning while taking my morning walk because it was downright chilly. It started me thinking that soon the “season of basil” will be over. I love basil and I bet most of you do too.

Most of the culinary basils fall under Ocimum basilicum. Ocinum comes from the Greek word “okimon” meaning smell; “basileus” is the Latin translation for king. This is where the nickname “king of herbs” originated.

There are more than 150 varieties of basil, with more being cultivated every year. The favorite culinary varieties are ‘Genovese’ and sweet, but don’t limit yourself to these. Stretch your gardening muscles and experience the flavored varieties such as cinnamon and lime, colored varieties such as ‘Purple Ruffles’ and ‘Osmin Purple’, and variegated varieties such as ‘Pesto Perpetuo’. With the different heights, shapes and leaf shapes available, there is a basil for every garden. Boxwood basil grows into an 8-10” round plant with tiny leaves, ‘Greek Columnar’ grows into a 24-36” tall and narrow plant with medium sized leaves, and ‘Lettuce Leaf’ grows into a 18-24” plant with huge, crinkly leaves.

These are some of my favorite basils:

Every garden plot should have the standard O. basilicum ‘Genovese’, which is sweetly scented and has a well-rounded flavor. This is the most popular variety for pesto. The 18-24” plant has dark green leaves and a uniform growth habit.

Watching your carbs? Then O. basilicum ‘Lettuce Leaf’ is for you. The 18-24” plant sports bright green, crinkled leaves that are large enough to contain various fillings (eliminating the need for bread or crackers).

Attributed with great healing and spiritual powers for thousands of years, O. sanctum ‘Holy Basil’ (also known as Tulsi) grows into an erect, shrubby 18-24” plant. The medium sized leaves have a pungent aroma that I don’t find appealing in food, but it makes a lovely tea.

O. kilimandscharicum ‘African Blue’ is not a culinary basil, but it’s a beautiful 24-36” tall specimen plant which grows very bushy and is covered with purple buds that open to lavender flowers. It deserves a place in the vegetable garden because it’s a pollinator magnet! This is the only basil I know that will bloom all season long and not go to seed.

Because basil is so easy to grow from seed, you can enjoy a diverse assortment of basil each year. One I plan to try next year is O. basilicum ‘Selloi’, commonly called bell pepper basil because the leaves have the slight taste of bell pepper. I’ve read that it’s the closest to a perennial basil that can be found. The experts say that planted in the ground in zone 8 and warmer, it will return from the roots in spring.

Basil can be started in flats or directly sown in the garden. To grow in flats, space seeds ½” apart and barely cover with seed starting mix or vermiculite. When seedlings have at least four true leaves, transplant them into small pots. Sowing directly in the garden, space seeds at least 12” apart. Factor into the sowing to planting time at least two weeks to harden off seedlings to avoid stunting plants.

Whether you start your basil from seed or purchase transplants, remember that basils love warmth. Time your seed sowing or transplant shopping so that basil will be planted in the garden in mid-May. Any earlier and the plants won’t die, but they won’t thrive like plants that are put in the ground later. Once in the ground water daily until established and then water as needed. Your basil will grow best if given two applications of a balanced fertilizer over the season. And don’t forget to snip regularly to produce bushy, well branched and attractive plants.

Sadly, it’s too late to plant basil now because soon our night time temperatures will dip below 50 degrees F. and basil plants will decline rapidly. As fall progresses, watch the weather predictions because it you’re not careful, you will come out morning and find that your lovely plant has turned into an ugly hag.

When you are ready to harvest, simply pull the plant out roots and all. If you don’t have time to process the bounty immediately, place the entire plant in a large bucket filled with warm water and you will be given a few days respite. Don’t store basil in the refrigerator as it will turn black.

Basil loses both its color and fragrance when dried. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t preserve it. The easiest way is to pulse basil leaves with a little water or olive oil until it forms a paste. Transfer the mixture to ice cube trays and freeze; when frozen, remove the cubes and place them in a freezer bag to use over the winter. You will have a taste of summer when you stir a cube or two into your winter soups and stews.

One of my favorite ways to preserve the flavor of basil is to make basil salt. Simply place one cup of packed leaves in a food processor and add one cup of sea salt. Pulse until the salt and herb is fully incorporated and the salt turns bright green. Spread the mixture on a large baking sheet and stir on a regular basis until the salt is completely dry. It can then be stored in a container and used as needed. Basil salt makes a lovely gift.

My friend, Mary Nell Jackson, introduced me to basil tea. As a member of the mint family it makes sense that it’s a delicious tea pot herb, and it’s considered a digestive. Add a handful of basil leaves (twist to extract the essential oils) to a tea pot and steep in near-boiling water for 5 minutes. I prefer it plain, but others like it with a little honey.

There are as many recipes as there are cooks for pesto, but have you ever made pistou? It’s similar, but different and I like the zing that tomatoes give the sauce. Combine 1 T crushed garlic and 1 tsp of salt in a mortar and crush until it forms a paste. Add ½ cup of basil (leaves torn in pieces) bit by bit until almost smooth. Stir in ¼ cup grated plum tomatoes and ¼ cup of olive oil until well mixed. Stir in 1 cup finely grated cheese of your choice (I like aged Gouda) and refrigerate until ready to serve. This mixture is delicious stirred into soups and stews. Like pesto, it can be frozen (before the addition of cheese).

Try some of these recipes so that you can continue to enjoy your basil for months to come. Also try extending your “season of basil” with a little trick: remove the lower leaves from the stems and place in a clear glass vase on the kitchen counter. Left for a few weeks, the stems will grow roots. These little cuttings can then be planted in pots and kept for another few months if placed under a good light source.

Then we’ll have to wait until next summer to enjoy our basil again …

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