Language and mythology:
Basil originated in India, where it was regarded as a sacred herb. The name comes from the Greek basileus meaning ‘king.’ Once people were no longer fearful of this herb, it was said to be “fit for a king’s house.” In Haiti basil is thought to belong to the pagan love goddess Erzulie, and in Italy it has been regarded as a sign of love.
Description: The plant has leafy stems and thin, branching roots. The two-lipped white flowers are 1/2 inch long and grow in racemes at the top of stems. The leaves are 2 to 3 inches long, opposite, and ovate with entire margins. They are yellow-green to dark green, depending on soil fertility. The tiny seeds are dark brown.
Plant type and hardiness: Annual; hardiness zones are not applicable to annuals. Height and width Height 12 to 24 inches; width 12 inches. Light and soil Full sun; rich, moist, well-drained soil with a pH of 6.
Pests and disease: Japanese beetles.
Cultivation: Basil must have warm conditions. For best results, sow in late spring or early summer. It is susceptible to cold and frost, and to drastic temperature change. Pinch the centers as the plants grow to ensure bushiness. Basil can be grown in pots but does not survive indoors.
Companion planting: Basil attracts butterflies and insects to the garden. It stimulates the growth of companion plants, especially tomatoes and peppers. It is said to repel white flies. Basil and rue do not do well when grown near each other.
Propagation method: Seeds, cuttings, or transplants.
Bloom time and color: July to August; white.
Harvesting: Harvest in early Autumn before the cold weather arrives and the leaves turn limp and yellow. Cut the long, leafy stalks for drying just before the plant comes into flower. Spread them in a shady place or on wire mesh to encourage quick drying. Do not hang in bunches as the leaves will dry too slowly and can mold. Oven drying is not advised, as the leaves scorch. Basil can be frozen chopped fresh in ice cube trays.
Herbal uses Aromatic, cosmetic, culinary, and medicinal: Dried basil is used for its fragrance in potpourris and sachets. It also is used in herbal bath mixtures and to add luster to the hair. Fresh or dried basil is used in cooking to flavor Italian, Mediterranean, and Thai dishes. Fresh leaves are used in tomato and pesto sauces. Basil is good with veal, lamb, fish, poultry, white beans, pasta, rice, tomatoes, cheese, and eggs. It also is used in vinegar and for tea. Basil is said to have some medicinal qualities.
Garden notes: We planted basil in large groups near smaller groupings of summer savory. The basil flower buds were pinched off during most of the summer to prolong the life of the plants by delaying flowering. This made the plants very bushy and full. We let the basil flower just before the summer savory so that both bloomed at the same time. This produced a nice effect. Our basil attracted Japanese beetles for about three weeks early in the summer. To keep the plants looking nice, we pinched off new growth as it was damaged by the insects.