Basil, also known as the “king of herbs” or “royal herb,” gets its name from the Greek basilikón phutón, meaning “kingly plant.” Folklore varies greatly, with tales of it being able to produce scorpions, warding off the strike of a basilisk serpent and growing at the foot of Christ’s cross, which lends itself to the observation of St. Basil’s feast day in Greece.
Basil has an estimated 50 varieties or cultivars. The most common is sweet basil that is used predominantly in Mediterranean and Italian cuisines. More pungent varieties such as Thai, lemon and licorice basil are all featured in the Southeast Asian cuisines of Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Taiwan.
There is an astounding 175% of the daily required amount of vitamin A in just 3 1/2 ounces of fresh basil herb. Vitamin A is known to have antioxidant properties and is essential for vision. Basil is also rich in vitamin K, a vital nutrient for strong, healthy bones. Medicinally, it has been used for centuries to produce teas to soothe headaches and indigestion.
Basil is an annual herb that can be started from seed or cutting. Like most herbs, it is a full sun plant, preferring six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily and well-drained, rich soil. Water basil regularly, being careful not to overwater. Allow soil to dry completely between watering, then soak thoroughly. Fertilize basil sparingly, as it will actually cause a decrease in its fragrant essential oils.
Although basil can be grown indoors, it is very difficult to prolong it for much more than a year. It can, however, be easily propagated from cuttings to produce new plants. Place the plant on the sunniest windowsill in your home so it receives as much light and warmth as possible.
Although some gardeners allow basil to flower for aesthetic purposes, it is not advisable when used for culinary purposes. Pinch potential flower heads immediately to prevent the plant from flowering, which will make the leaves develop a bitter taste. Frequent pruning will also encourage a bushier plant, abundant with leaves.
To prune basil so it focuses its energy on producing more leaves instead of flower heads, wait until the plant has four to six sets of leaves and is between 8 and 12 inches in height. Snip entire stems or remove the top sets of leaves just above the node below it, where the next set of leaves are forming. This will send a signal to the plant to focus its energy to mature the next set of leaves. Pulling just a leaf here and there will have the plant growing tall instead of bushy, and it's why it will bolt and go to seed.
Basil can set flowers in the blink of an eye, so frequent pruning is recommended. However, if the plant gets away from you and flower buds have emerged, it can be pruned back by half to get it back on track.
Basil also makes a fine companion plant. It attracts pollinators when planted near blueberries, has been shown effective in deterring hornworm when planted near tomatoes and it repels other garden pests when planted near root vegetables and peppers.
Most folks are familiar with basil in Mediterranean cuisine, in which it pairs particularly well with tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and fresh mozzarella cheese; however, it pairs surprisingly well with some interesting ingredients. Basil adds a fresh peppery tone when paired with watermelon, feta and balsamic vinegar, either individually or brought together as a refreshing summer salad.
Basil balances the tartness of lemon when added to lemonade or on top of the ice crystals of lemon granita or sherbet. Strawberries, apricots and peaches also pair well with basil. Being a member of the mint family, the two combine beautifully as a pesto for roasted vegetables or when muddled into a Mojito.
Its ease to grow, medicinal and dietary benefits, and culinary versatility are what make basil the king of the herbs. Following is a recipe for basic pesto. It is a wonderful base on pizza; tossed with pasta; drizzled over roasted vegetables, fresh tomatoes or grilled chicken; and as a condiment on sandwiches. Until next week, happy gardening.
• 4 cups packed basil leaves
• 3-4 cloves garlic
• 1/4 cup pine nuts (walnuts can be substituted)
• 3/4 grated parmesan cheese
• 1/2 cup olive oil (more or less, depending on desired consistency)
Place basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts and parmesan in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to combine slightly. Pour the olive oil in slowly until desired consistency is met. Season with salt and fresh ground black pepper, if desired, to taste.
— Irland, a member of the Limestone County Master Gardeners, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit https://mg.aces.edu/limestone for more information on the Limestone County Master Gardeners.