Essential Herbs: Basil

Classic Genovese basil ready to harvest.By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

Summer just wouldn’t be summer without a plethora of lusty basil plants flourishing in the garden.  In fact, I love the sight, smell, and taste of these leafy annual herbs so much that I always over-plant in the spring and by mid-summer wind up with more basil than I need – or even know what to do with.  Yet, every spring when my husband asks me if I think we might just have too many basil starts, my reply is always the same… there’s no such thing as too much basil!

Basil Factoids
– Latin Name: , Ocimum americanum, O. ×citriodorum
– Belong to the Mint Family (Lamiaceae) of plants.
– Parts Used: Leaves, flowering tops, seeds.

Common Types of Basil
There are thought to be up to 150 cultivars of basil worldwide, with that number changing rapidly due to basil’s keen ability to hybridize.  Most belong to one of these species:

Ocimum basilicum – Contains most basil varieties including Purple Ruffles, Genovese, Fino Verde, Thai, Mammoth, Lettuc Leaf, Cinnamon, Anise, Licorice and many hybrids.
Ocimum  sanctum – Primarily lemon and lime-flavored basils.
Ocimum  ×citriodorum – Thai Lemon and Greek Column basils.
Ocimum  sanctum – Holy Basil
O. minimum – Globe Basil

Delicate Thai basil is perfect for any garden.

In general, basil is a bushy, branching, annual herb with square (four-sided) stems.  Depending on which cultivar you grow, basil might only reach 8” tall or soar to heights in excess of three and a half feet in a single growing season!  Regardless of the cultivar, all basils bear spicy-sweet ovate to lance-shaped leaves.  Basil leaves can be dark green, lime green, green with purple tints or veining, all purple or even variegated, depending on the cultivar.  Some have leaves that are smooth and shiny, while others are dull or deeply wrinkled.  The white or pale pink flowers of basil are borne in tight whorls on terminal spikes beginning in mid-summer and continuing through the fall.

Propagation and Growing

Basil is a tender annual that will not tolerate frost. Basil prefers warmth, full sun, and average, well-drained soil. Grow basil by direct-sowing seeds or transplanting young seedlings in the garden after all danger of frost. Thin plants to stand 10 to 12 in. (25 to 30 cm) apart in the garden. To start seedlings indoors, sow seeds in a light seed starting mix six to ten weeks before the last frost. Take care to barely cover the small seeds with soil and allow five to ten days for germination. If you have had trouble in the past getting basil to germinate from seed, try pressing the seeds lightly into the soil surface without covering them. Sometimes this works when other methods fail.

When seedlings are 6 to 7 in. (15 to 18 cm) tall, and periodically throughout the growing season, pinch back the growing stem tips. It is best to pinch off just the first pair or two of the topmost leaves, removing the stem to the next lowest pair. This will make the plant branch out and become more rounded or bushy. Do not forget to eat the portion that you have removed—it has all the flavor of the mature basil.


Leaves are most flavorful when picked just before the flowers open. Poor drying results in black, musty, or flavorless leaves, so dry them quickly under low heat or use them fresh. To dry basil, cut plant stems to 6 in. (15 cm) and hang loose bunches in the shade until crisp.  Alternatively, strip leaves and dry on screens. Sun drying may reduce the medicinal value slightly.  When chopped and blended with a bit of water or olive oil, basil freezes exceptionally well.  To hold fresh basil for several days, immerse stem ends in a glass of water and keep on the counter until needed.

Basil leaves ready to be dried.

Basil leaves will often turn black when refrigerated and occasionally when they are cut with a knife.  To prevent discoloration, snip the leaves with a sharp pair of scissors or tear the leaves by hand when using them fresh. Collect seeds just as they begin to turn black, and dry them thoroughly before storing.

Culinary Uses

Basil is a classic seasoning for Italian cuisine and is the main ingredient in traditional pesto. Fresh green basil leaves have a crisp, sweet flavor that is perfect for pastas and salads. Dried basil has deeper, more floral tones well suited to sauces, roasts, and other cooked dishes. It goes especially well with any dish containing tomatoes. Basil imparts a unique and refreshing flavor to eggs, soups, stews, vegetables, and breads. Basil is excellent on fish, chicken, and pasta, as well as in salads, herbed oils, butters, vinegars, dressings, and dips. Experiment with some of the flavored basil varieties such as cinnamon, lemon, lime anise, East Indian, and spicy Thai basil for an exciting new twist to your favorite dishes.

Sweet basil in full bloom.

Used to Treat

Basil is an extremely gentle and reliable herb that has been overlooked as a medicine. It increases memory, improves function of the nervous system, and acts as an immunostimulant. It also increases the body’s ability to use insulin.

Basil aids digestion and reduces flatulence, bloating, fullness, heartburn, stomachache, nausea, colic, constipation, cramps, spasms, and water retention. Basil is used to treat colds, flu, phlegmy coughs, fever, sore throat, mild insomnia, tension, and tension headaches. It prevents infection in wounds, burns, and rashes and treats fungal infections such as athlete’s foot.

Basil soothes and protects irritated skin and mucous membranes. It also stimulates and regulates menstruation and promotes lactation. Externally, basil oil repels biting insects and is said to help acne. As a hair rinse, basil adds luster and a woodsy scent to hair. A decoction added to bath water will stimulate sluggish skin.

Thai Basil in bloom.

I think by now you understand why I always say that one can never have enough basil in the garden.  After all, basils are super easy to grow; they are heat, drought and deer resistant and incredibly functional as both food and medicine.  Not only that, but with all the different sizes, shapes, colors and textures that the various basil cultivars offer, you’d be crazy not to grow at least a few in the for the sheer joy of seeing them.

Even if you don’t grow herbs for food or medicine, why not add one or more basil cultivars to your flower beds for an extra special splash of color and texture that you won’t find anywhere else?  And if you do grow basil for harvesting the leaves, plant a few extras specifically for their flowers, which will attract a horde of beneficial insects to will help combat some of your worst garden pests organically.

Happy gardening!

© 2015 Jill Henderson  Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.

The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs by Jill HendersonThe Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs

Learn how to grow and use the world’s oldest, safest, and most medicinal herbs with this easy step-by-step guide!  From starting seeds to preparing home remedies, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs is a treasured resource that you will turn to time and time again.

Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.
Look inside!

Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.

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