Sylvia Forbes is a Missouri-based reflexologist and freelance writer who loves to tour gardens and explore nature.

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Bodacious Basil: The Sumptuous Taste of Summer
by Sylvia Forbes    

In the middle of summer, when temperatures soar, that's when sun-loving basil is at its best. This tropical annual herb loves heat and as long as it has adequate water and good soil, it will thrive to produce a culinary bounty.

When early cooks searched to find a flavor fit for a king, they didn't have to look far. Basil is native to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and South America. With its robust, bold taste, basil has enough flavor to satisfy anyone's palate, including royalty. In keeping with its revered status, gardeners in Italy reserved their most beautiful pots for growing basil. Its powerful flavor inspired a botanist to give it the scientific name of Ocimum basilicum, where Ocimum comes from Greek, and means “smell,” while basilicum comes from Latin and means “king.” 

Types of Basil

Basil 'Pesto Perpetuo' is a variegated basil. This is one of the newer varieties, introduced in 2006. The photo was taken at Powell Gardens in Missouri.

There are between 30 and 150 species of basil, depending on the expert you're asking, and numerous varieties. All botanically belong to the mint family, whose members have the common characteristics of square stems and leaves that grow opposite each other on the stem.

Basils can be grouped into six general categories:

Sweet basils. The sweet basils are some of the most commonly grown basils, and have medium-sized leaves and a strong flavor.

The bush basils. Bush basils are upright plants with tiny leaves, and grow in a compact form. They are some of the best choices for growing in pots, or growing indoors.

Purple basils. These have a great flavor, but are most often grown for their striking color, both in the garden and in culinary dishes. They're often added to herbal vinegars.

Lettuce-leaf basils. These have the mildest flavor of the basils, but grow to be the largest plants. Because of their large leaves, they are often grown by cooks who need to use a large quantity of basil. The leaves can be used to wrap foods like fish, or to create a layer in a quiche or lasagna.

Scented basils. These basils have recognizable scents of other plants, such as lemon, cinnamon and anise, in addition to the basil scent. They may be paired with specific foods for extra flavor, like using lemon basil on fish, or cinnamon basil in fruit dishes.

Outliers. These are basils which don't fit into the other categories; they differ from the typical basils in some way. For example, camphor basil has a strong, medicinal scent, and holy basil has leaves that are fuzzy.

Three compounds, which are present in all basils in varying amounts, give basils their characteristic fragrance. Linalool gives a light floral scent; methyl chavicol gives an anise-like scent; and eugenol gives a clove-like scent. There may be additional compounds present to create a more complex scent, but these three provide the basic scent signature for the genus.

‘Eat’ Your Medicine

Scientific research has found that basil doesn't just taste good; it has many beneficial health properties. One compound in basil, cinnamic acid, has been found to improve circulation, stabilize blood sugar and improve respiration. Another compound, beta-caryophyllene, is a natural anti-inflammatory. The natural antioxidants in basil are thought to help to prevent cellular aging, help guard against skin ailments and cancer, and boost the immune system. Eating basil might even help to fight bacterial and viral infections, such as the flu.

A dwarf bush basil

Growing Basil

Basil grows best in warm temperatures, so wait until late spring, when nighttime temperatures are above 60 F., to sow seeds outdoors. If growing seeds indoors, optimal germination temperatures are around 75 F. Since the seeds are tiny, they should be planted only 1/8 inch deep. Germination occurs in about three days for most basil species.

Garden centers might still have basil transplants now, so you could plant or pot up a couple plants and still have some time to grow it on before the first frost.

Although a fertile soil is important, do not overfertilize. Too much nitrogen will cause excessive leaf growth, resulting in a low oil content, and therefore less flavor.

If planting seedlings, plant them at least 12 inches apart. Larger varieties such as lettuce-leaf varieties may need to be planted up to 18 inches apart. Choose a location where the plants get at least six hours of sun; a full-sun location is even better.

Water at the base of the plant. Leaves that get wet may develop blackspot.

Pinch back the stems frequently to encourage branching, which results in more basil to harvest per plant. Be sure to keep flowers pinched off the stem; flowering triggers the plant to use its energy to start producing seeds rather than producing leaves. Flowers are edible, too, so add any you pinch off to your harvest for use in the kitchen.

The best time to harvest basil is usually from 9 to 11 in the morning, after the dew is off, but before it gets too hot.

Basil in the Kitchen

Basil is such a versatile herb, it can be added to perk up almost any type of dish, from soups and stews, to meats, breads, salads, sauces and even desserts. Perhaps the most iconic dish, which people think of when talking about basil, is pesto.


The “classic” pesto recipe, which is thought to be more than 2,000 years old, combines basil (1 cup), garlic (2 cloves), Parmesan cheese (¼ cup), pine nuts (¼ cup), and olive oil (¼ cup), all pounded and mixed together with a mortar and pestle, to create a green paste, which is then drizzled over pasta. However, there are dozens of versions; some use walnuts instead of pine nuts, some add cream to the mixture, some substitute other types of cheese, while still others use additional herbs such as parsley. Today, the blender has replaced the mortar and pestle, speeding up the mixing process.

Try making herbal vinegar with opal basil, one of the common purple varieties.

Herbal Vinegars

Flavored vinegars add a little extra zing to homemade salad dressings, and also look beautiful on the shelf. They are simple to make and great to give as gifts. Basil is an excellent choice for making herbal vinegar. They not only add to the taste, but the color of the purple basils adds an attractive look to the vinegars.

First, sterilize the jars you plan to use by boiling them in water for at least 10 minutes, and then let them cool and dry.

Wash and pat dry the basil and any other herbs you plan to use. Place them in the bottle, and then bruise the leaves with a spoon, so that the flavors are easily extracted. Next, choose a vinegar to use — there are many types, so have fun experimenting! Heat the vinegar to boiling in a non-metal pan, then pour the vinegar into the jar, covering the herbs. Taste the vinegar every couple of days, until you like the flavor. Then strain out the herbs. Get another clean, sterilized jar with a good lid, and add a few herbs for looks. Then pour in the herbal vinegar and cap. For more flavor, you can add other ingredients to your vinegars such as fruits (raspberry and blueberry work well), peppercorns, shallots or lemon peel.

This is a cutting of sweet basil, which is then used in the chicken dish.

Garlic Basil Chicken

Many cultures add basil to meat dishes for extra flavor. This easy dish only takes a few minutes to prepare, then an hour to bake.

Put two boneless chicken breasts in a shallow baking pan and sprinkle lightly with cinnamon. Add a small handful of baby carrots and a few quartered red potatoes. Quarter one onion and place in pan. Separate one head of garlic and scatter the cloves throughout the pan. Top with 3 tablespoons of diced basil. Drizzle a small amount of oil over everything. Bake uncovered at 350 F until chicken is done, about one hour. 

Garlic basil baked chicken

The Perfect Pair

Basil and tomato seem to be a perfect flavor combination, no matter how they're fixed. Make bruschetta by slicing a baguette of bread into slices, topping each bread with a slice of tomato, a couple of leaves of basil and some mozzarella or feta cheese. Drizzle with olive oil, then broil until warmed. Or add both tomato and basil into your favorite quiche recipe. Try adding chopped basil to a creamy tomato soup. Or add tomato and basil to a fresh mesclun lettuce salad.

Or try making your own creations. One idea will inspire the next great way to use basil.

Photos by Sylvia Forbes


Posted: 08/12/13   RSS | Print


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