By Joyce Driemeyer
Every seed company seems to have developed and marketed a multitude of hybrid basils. Many have fancy names, but I wonder if some are varieties of the same plants we have known for years. Sweet basil (Ocimum basilcum) originated in tropical Asia and Africa, and has been used in world cuisines, aromatherapy and for medical purposed for centuries.
It is an extremely fragrant annual, easily propagated from seed or cuttings. In our climate, it should not be introduced into the garden until May, after we have had some warming. Earlier installation will set the plant back immeasurably. It is suggested that once installed in a fully sunny spot with good drainage that the flowering tips be pinched back to encourage bushiness. For culinary purposes, the foliage is of principle interest.
If allowed to flower, many of the blooms are extremely ornamental with colors ranging from white to pink to red, purple or green, and are, of course, very fragrant. Some of the fragrances can be spicy, some reminiscent of cinnamon, some lemon, some like mint or thyme.
One disease problem that has surfaced in recent years is Fusarium wilt, a fungal problem for which there is no cure. If this occurs, remove the plant and discard in the trash – do not add to compost and do not install another basil in that spot, since the soil is now contaminated. Look for disease-resistant varieties and seed that is guaranteed to be disease free.
Sizes of basils can range from 6-12 inches for the minimum varieties to 12-30 inches for some other varieties. The large-leaved sweet basils, like lettuce leaf, or sweet Genovese are traditional for pestos and other tomato dishes. There is a new introduction called Cardinal basil – a lower grower (18-13 inches) with reddish purple flowers, purple stem and green foliage. It is reported to have a sweet licorice flavor.
I have always loved the dwarf basils – bush basil, purple bush, spicy globe. They are great for restrained compact growth, are nice in pots or front of the border. 6-10 inches tall with small leaves, they are as flavorful as some larger varieties.
Some basils being called red such as Red Rubin or Red Leaf, are really purple basils or, at best, wine colored. They are beautiful accents in any border or pot – not just with herbs, and as I have written before, make beautiful flavorful wine vinegars.
Anise basil (originally from Persia) has purplish foliage also; cinnamon basil (originally from Mexico) and lemon basil are great for teas. Lime-flavored basils and Thai basils are used extensively in Southeast Asian cooking for seafood and poultry seasoning. Thai basil (Siam Queen) has deep purple flowers, dark-green leaves and a spicy anise licorice flavor with overtones of mint and citrus. Another new introduction, Blue Spice basil, has spicy fragrance with a vanilla overtone. The flowers are pale purple on deep purple bracts. Use in fruit salads or with poultry.
The leaves of many of the basils have a medicinal history, and teas are used for G.I. disturbances. Some are reported to have some antibacterial and insect repellent properties, including O. sanctum (Holy basil, a sub shrub of Asia and Australia).
So many choices, it will be fun to experiment. If you are wondering what to do with all the herbs you are growing this summer, look for a new cookbook appearing in May titled Herbal Cookery by the St Louis Herb Society.
Joyce Driemeyer says she’s semi-retired after more than 25 years as a professional landscape designer. She is a Master Gardener, and volunteers, lectures and conducts classes at Missouri Botanical Garden, and has actively served in both the St Louis Herb Society and The Herb Society of America.