BASIL

A large family of beautifully aromatic herbs …

Familiar to so many of us who reach it the moment we cook ‘Italian’ this is also an amazing ancient herb

As with all herbs, the healing properties of any herb have been handed down through folk medicine in many cultures over thousands of years.  The earliest references seem to describe basil as being the perfect remedy for menstrual cramps but maybe not surprisingly, neither scientists seem to agree!  Such a pity if you imagine that including a basil rich pesto or a sprinkling of sweetly scented chopped basil on a tomato salad just might have been the answer to a really annoying female problem!

There are many varieties of Basil originating from some 60 species which are mostly native to India, Iran, and some regions of Asia. Basil is now cultivated worldwide as one of the most popular culinary herbs.

THE BASIL FAMILY

The most common variety is Common, Bush or Sweet Basil Ocimum basilicum which forms a compact plant growing to around 18 inches high. Well, that’s OK in principle, but my bushes are lucky if they make half that size as I am constantly picking young leaves to add to so many dishes.

HERBY TIP: Please remember that if you stop picking leaves, the plant stops growing and produces beautiful mauve flowers rather than the aromatic leaves probably want!  This looks very pretty but your plant will die.

The Purple Basils, including varieties such as the frilly leaved Purple Ruffles and Dark Opal ‘Purpurascens’, add a splendid burgundy colour to the garden. They can be used in the same ways you would use common basil, though they are little less sweet and have a hint of liquorice. The purple leaves certainly create a beautiful colour when preserved in white vinegar or oil, or when you use them for dressing salads.

The lighter, citrussy flavoured basils such as Lemon Basil (Ocimum × citriodorumare) are wonderful as salad leaves or in pestos. The spicier Thai basil with its strong almost incense like aroma, is best used in dishes where the herb where the flavour develops during cooking.

Basils which provide a more spicy aroma include Thai Basil (Ocinum basilicum var. thyrsiflora), which carries a sweet liquorice-anise aroma and so does the cultivar, Cinnamon Basil which is appropriately named! Both are much used in Thailand, but only add them sparingly to curries and other spicy dishes because cooking always intensifies the flavour. According to Hindu mythology, Thai Basil, (also known as “Tulsi”), symbolizes the goddess Lakshmi—the wife of Vishnu, one of the most sacred deities in this religion

BASIL DETERS POLLINATORS

One of the active ingredients in Basil which creates the scent of cloves is eugenol. It acts as a wonderful insect deterrent. My greenhouse tomatoes had several plants interspersed with them last year and I never saw sign of any white fly, or even tomato moths that always bother my plants.

But this brings up an issue in many gardens, created for their perfumes and to attract bees! You really don’t want basils near to flowers which attract pollinators, or even your peas and runner beans …. their scent deters the very insects you need to pollinate your flowers!!

GROWING BASIL

Basils, I believe are better grown indoors in a pot and yes in the greenhouse too. They are easy to propagate from seed which is readily available. Like most herbs, they will grow best on a light-facing windowsill but not left in the midday heat of the sun. They should also be kept away from extremely cold drafts. If its leaves have wilted from lack of water, it will recover if watered from the base thoroughly and placed in a sunny location. Yellow leaves towards the bottom of the plant are an indication that the plant has been stressed; usually this means that it needs less water, or less or more fertilizer.