Basil has many magic and sacred origins. Basil has been considered sacred for thousands of years – it used to be cut only with instruments of noble metal by those who were pure of heart. During the reign of Emperor Constantine, the emperor’s mother Helena had a divine revelation that led her to a basil patch where she found what was believed to be the remains of the cross on which Christ was crucified. Holy basil, or Ocimum sanctum, is known in India as the Queen of Herbs, a critical plant used in Ayurvedic medicine. And even in the secular world, basil is still considered magical– in Italy, basil was pinned onto a woman’s clothing to proclaim her chastity. On the other hand, a pot of basil set on a windowsill signified that a woman was ready to receive her lover.
During the Dark Ages, basil did not fare as well. Perhaps because of a misunderstanding of the Greek word ‘Basilisk’, which was a feared, fabled, lizard like fire breathing monster, poor basil was considered to be a plant of evil. Imagine believing that basil would cause problems with digestion, urination, lactation, and would cause poison to be drawn to any person consuming it. Just dreaming about basil could bring misfortune and unhappiness. Wow, poor basil. Fortunately, basil did take hold in Europe by the mid 16th century, and within a century more than 70 varieties of basil had been described, from the common Genovese basil to lemon basil, small leaved basils, and purple leaved basils. Basil has become a staple in our kitchens now, and many of the varieties promise to produce natural insecticides and medicinal products.
The standard way to start basil is to start it from seed. 2000 years ago Pliny, a Roman naturalist and doctor, believed that basil growers had to curse and stamp the earth as the seeds were scattered in the field– this was believed to bring forth the supernatural forces which would improve germination and growth. I am sure sometimes gardeners feel this way, but really the important thing is to provide warm soil temperatures (over 60 degrees F), darkness for the seed to germinate (so cover the seed with soil at least ¼ inch), and moisture. Some basil, such as Genovese, will germinate in 5 to 7 days, while others such as Holy basil will take 14 days or longer to germinate.
Once germinated, basil prefers light, warm temperatures, and ample water. The surface should be allowed to dry out before watering to avoid damping off (when young plant stems suddenly turn brown and die right at the soil surface). When the first “true” leaves are present– the second set of leaves– 6 plants are ready to transplant into larger pots and receive their first fertilization. Unlike so many herbs that need little water and fertilization, basil prefers ample fertilizer and water, especially nitrogen, so be sure to begin fertilizing your basil on a regular schedule- at least once a month in the ground or in raised beds, and once every 2 weeks in containers. Fish emulsion or compost tea works well, or if fertilizing with inorganic fertilizers use at half the recommended strength. If you don’t fertilize regularly, basil will quickly go to flower and produce seed, producing few leaves and inferior quality. Pinching back the plants and removing the flower heads and several sets of leaves will help ‘reprogram’ the plant to produce more leaves, but it is still important to continue fertilizing.
It is true that everyone loves basil, and that includes snails, slugs, earwigs, gophers, rabbits and deer. Snails and slugs tend to be a problem early in the season, when the stems and leaves are young and tender. If you use a sprinkling of diatomaceous earth around the plant, or an organic compound such as Sluggo, then most crawling insects will stay away from your plant– check any slug and snail baits before you use them however, as most are very poisonous and are not to be applied around edible crops, animals or children! Little tins of cheap beer will also lure many snails and slugs to their deaths, or a paper coffee cup with the bottom cut off and the side slit open can be placed around the base of a basil plant and the rim coated with a one inch wide band of ‘Tanglefoot’ (we sell it at the nursery) to prevent anything from crawling.
Rather than plant all of your basil at the same time, stage planting so basil is planted every month, April through June or even into July, so the basil you are harvesting in October for your winter pesto is from fresher, younger plants. Of course, you have to include many of the basils in your garden. Below is a list of all of the basils we currently offer at Morningsun. The Genovese and Italian large leaf are the classic favorites, but ‘Pesto Perpetuo’, with its lovely variegated leaves, better resistance to heat and cold, and the fact that it never blooms makes this a real winner in the summer garden! For unusual salad greens, try the purple of bi-color basils such as Corsican, Amethyst or Red Rubin.
Basil Varieties Available at Morningsun Herb Farm 2013
Ocimum basilicum – CINNAMON BASIL – Deep green leaves with a hint of purple, sharp cinnamon flavor. Use in teas, drinks, fruit salads and desserts.
Ocimum basilicum – GENOVESE BASIL – Italian pesto basil, spicy clove fragrance.
Ocimum basilicum ‘citriodora’– LEMON BASIL ‘MRS. BURNS’ – Very lemony flavored and scented foliage, heirloom basil. Delicious for pestos, as a salad green, and with fish.
Ocimum americanum – LIME BASIL – Light citrus scented leaves, excellent in vinegars, fish and salads. Smaller plant, only growing 16 inches.
Ocimum basilicum – AMETHYST BASIL – Darkest purple basil, almost black, large leafed Genovese type. 2 feet.
Ocimum basilicum – CORSICAN BASIL – Heirloom Mediterranean, leaves are mottled green-purple, mildly sweet, great for garnish, fresh use in salads, unusual pesto.
Ocimum basilicum – BLUE SPICE BASIL – Deep green, slightly fuzzy leaves, with spicy with a definite fragrance and flavor of vanilla! Yum, delicious for tea, desserts and fruit salad.
Ocimum basilicum – GODDESS BASIL – Small bright green leaf, very compact plantnto 1 ft tall, slow to bolt, very spicy flavor, excellent for cooking, pizza, sauces. Easy to grow in containers
Ocimum basilicum – ITALIAN LARGE LEAF BASIL – Sweet pesto type basil, high yielding, cam grow to 3 feet. Mild enough to be used as a salad green.
Ocimum basilicum – PESTO PERPETUO – Variegated NON BLOOMING Genovese type basil. Excellent for containers, never blooms, is more cold, heat, and drought tolerant than others. This is one everybody should grow!!
Ocimum basilicum – RED RUBIN PURPLE BASIL – Glossy, slightly ruffled purple leaves, pale pink flowers, very sweet. Grow in afternoon shade for best flavor. Great in salads, pesto, with vegetables, but also a great ornamental.
Ocimum basilicum minimum – SPICY BUSH BASIL Hot, spicy basil, very strong flavor. Great with cheeses, heavy sauces. Only grows to one foot, great for containers.
Ocimum basilicum – THAI BASIL – Stongest spicy anise-clove flavor, used in Asian cooking.
Ocimum kilimanscharium x O. basilicum purpurescens – AFRICAN BLUE BASIL – Specimen basil with large green and purple leaves. Long spikes of purple flowers bloom April-Dec. Interesting culinary and an excellent choice in a vegetable garden to attract pollinators, it will overwinter as a houseplant.
Ocimum sanctum – SACRED BASIL – Revered by Hindus as sacred plant. Musky scent. Very aromatic, great for the scented garden. Small pretty plant, growing to 16 inches.