Ask A Master Gardener – Basil: The King of Herbs

Basil, Ocimum basilicum, is one of the most popular culinary herbs, often referred to as the “king of herbs.”  Basil can be used in soups, salads, pesto, and pasta.  It can be used dried, fresh, or frozen.  It is popular in Italian, Asian, Greek, and Indian cuisines.  Fortunately, it is also an easy herb to grow either on a windowsill or in-home gardens.

Basil has a long history, sprinkled generously with some legend. The Latin term basiliculm means king/royalty in Greek.  This was an herb fit for a king.  It was thought to produce a merry and gentle heart.  In some cultures, it was a good luck charm and was hung to ward off evil spirits.  Others buried it with their dead to help them get to the afterlife.  Some thought it was an aphrodisiac and others thought it would cause spontaneous generation of scorpions in the brain.

Basil was used medicinally to aid digestion, cure snakebite, recover from colds and flu, as a remedy for flatulence, to improve memory, and for anxiety, motion sickness, and vomiting.

This member of the mint family is best used culinarily.   Like mint, there are many different species and even more cultivars.  The most commonly one used culinarily is the sweet or Genovese basils.  They are large, 12–18 inches tall, with 2–4 inch leaves and have characteristic flavor.  Thai basil, with its licorice flavor, is most often the choice for Asia dishes.  Spicy cinnamon basil and lemon basil are other options for a different flavor.  All are equally tall plants, but can have smaller leaves.

Basil can be grown for ornamental purposes, and those cultivars still produce entirely edible leaves. Choose dwarf, bush, or purple-leaf varieties to spice up your landscape.  The dwarf and bush varieties will be smaller, in the 10–12 inch range.  The purple-leaf ones are exceptionally attractive, with dark bronze and sometimes wavy leaves.

Basil in an annual in our zone. Like most herbs, it requires a sunny location and well-drained soil.  Sow seeds once the danger of frost has passed and cover lightly with soil.  Keep it moist and the seeds should germinate in 7–10 days.  Thin the plants so that there is 6–12 inches of space between each.  Good air circulation is important to keeping basil healthy, so do not crowd the plants.

Harvest basil early in the day, but never cut more than half of the plant at once. Harvest individual leaves or harvest stems just above a set of leaves.  New growth will appear at this point and using this method can result in a bushier, healthy plant.

Fresh basil stems can be kept on the kitchen counter in a glass of water for several days. Do not refrigerate as this will discolor the leaves and alter the flavor.

At the end of the season, preserve the last of the bounty by drying the leaves for winter use. They can also be preserved by making and freezing pesto or chopping basil and covering it with water in an ice cube tray and freezing it.

Do you want fresh basil all year long? It can easily be grown inside.  Sow the seeds in a standard potting mix and keep in a warm, sunny location.


Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener


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