My friend Basil

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Valentino basil

I don't think I could ever live without Basil - the herb, I mean. I can't remember when I first tasted it (I certainly don't recall it when I was growing up) but once I had sampled that unique flavour, I was hooked for life. Tomatoes and basil are a match made in culinary heaven, and basil pesto has to be one of my favourite foods. It is indispensable in Italian cooking, as well as being used in many South-East Asian dishes. Just the mere smell of a crushed leaf can make me go weak at the knees. I didn't start growing it myself until a few years ago, but nowadays, planting basil seeds indoors in late winter is a ritual that I look forward to every year.

I sow the seed in late August, so that by the time the weather has warmed up sufficiently, the basil is ready to be transplanted outside. Generally, basil is regarded as a 'tender' herb: in other words, it hates cold weather and only grows through the warmer months. Most forms of basil are annual plants, hailing from tropical Asia, Africa and Central and South America. After wonderfully lush growth throughout summer and autumn, the plants gradually lose their vigour, the leaves blacken as winter approaches, and the plant dies off.

I keep my tubs of basil inside a mesh cage

There are a number of different varieties of this annual basil (Ocimum basilicum), including the generic 'sweet basil' which is the one we buy bunches of at the greengrocer; other varieties include those marketed as 'Valentino' or 'Lettuce Leaf', which have huge leaves; purple-leaved forms, such as 'Dark Opal' and 'Purple Ruffles'; and Thai basil (Ocimum basilicum 'Horapha'), which can't really be substituted for sweet basil, being much more clove-scented. Greek basil (Ocimum minimum) is a separate species; the plant has tiny leaves and a more compact form. Annual basil loves rich soil, water, fertiliser and sun. It grows about 30 to 60 cm tall. I find it best to grow it in a large tub. In my garden, basil is a martyr to the dreaded flea beetle, which disfigures and eventually ruins the foliage, so I place my tubs inside a wooden cage covered with a very fine mesh, which effectively excludes the beetles (as well as moths and butterflies, whose caterpillars also will defoliate basil very quickly, snails and aphids).

Another important aspect of basil culture is to nip out any flowering stems that develop, as these seem to weaken the plant, with all its energy being directed to seed-production if they are allowed to remain on the plant. Regular tip-pruning will help create a shrubby plant and often obviate the development of flowering stems.

There is much folklore associated with basil. It is said to repel flies - even fruit flies - and mosquitoes; it is also said to 'clear the brain and relieve headaches', as well as to be a digestive tonic if the leaves are mixed with red wine - though I have never personally any of tested these theories. Basil has religious significance in some cultures (particularly holy basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum).

Basil grown as a microgreen crop

Attempts to preserve basil so as to have it available through winter generally produce substandard results - dried basil doesn't taste much like the fresh herb, nor do chopped leaves frozen in ice blocks, as is sometimes suggested, though they can be useful in casseroles. This year, I have discovered that basil can be grown indoors in a pot on a sunny windowsill through winter. I obtained a pot containing several plants from the greengrocer, and I didn't transplant them. Growth is obviously more limited, because of the smaller size of the container required in such a position, and lack of strong sunlight in winter, but I was able to use the leaves (sparingly) for a number of meals, with the plant regenerating each time it was thus 'pruned'. Basil can also be grown as a microgreen plant on a windowsill (pictured above), thickly sown and harvested a few weeks after germination. The baby leaves have a good basil flavour.

Perennial form of basil

There are also perennial forms of basil, and I was given a form with a purplish tinge to its foliage that has survived through winter. The flavour of the perennial varieties seems to vary somewhat, with some being too 'camphor-ish', but this one appears to have a good basil aroma. I am not sure of its name but it could be 'African Blue', a cross between Ocimum kilimandscharicum and Ocimum basilicum 'Dark Opal'. It has pretty spires of purple flowers; the perennial forms can apparently be allowed to flower as this won't hurt the leaf production. There are several forms, I gather, and they can grow into small shrubs, which attract bees and offer the possibility of basil leaves throughout the year. They are propagated by cuttings.

Coming up on 26 and 27 September 2015 is the third Plant Lovers Fair at Kariong Mountains High School at Kariong on the Central Coast of NSW. It is great to have such an event in spring, when we are all feeling enthusiastic about gardening! There will be more than 40 stalls, as well as free talks and demonstrations. There will be stalls selling a huge variety of plants, as well as garden tools, accessories and books. Food and beverages will be available. The fair is open 9 am to 4 pm both days, with an entrance of $10 per person (children under 18 years admitted free; bus groups $8 per person). Visit the website for further information.

Reader Comments

  • By Jan 2582 Monday, 21 September 2015

    I love perennial basil - I had a beautiful bush that I should have left in Sydney. Unfortunately it fell quickly victim to Yass frosts! We need to wait a bit longer to get planting... never know if there will be a surprise late frost. Yes, I guess "perennial" really only means in fairly frost-free climates for that basil. With colder weather predicted this week, you are right to hold off with the basil; I may have been too eager planting mine out this week! Deirdre

  • By Betty 3104 Monday, 21 September 2015

    A lovely warm, sunny day in Melbourne yesterday. Went to a Nursery with my daughter who asked the man behind the counter what was the best selling plant of the day? He replied "Basil - everyone wants it"! Thanks, Betty. It certainly is a great herb. Deirdre

  • By DAVID 2068 Monday, 21 September 2015

    I have tried growing Ocimum basilicum "Horapha" (Thai basil) but am not very fond of the aniseed taste of it. Easy to grow in summer and quite a pretty plant though. I was wondering about Ocimum tenuiflorum (Thai holy basil) because I"d read it is widely used in Thailand for cooking. Anybody familiar? I haven"t seen it myself. If you can get to the Plant Lovers Fair at Kariong on the Central Coast this coming weekend, you might find it there - there are several stalls selling edibles, including herbs. Deirdre

  • By Richard 2066 Monday, 21 September 2015

    I"ve been successful with basilicum, making it grow up to about 3 years...but that is only to see if I could. I agree the plant gets weaker after its first year and you may as well plant new each year. I plant in pots outdoors and I have REAL problems with the green caterpillars which can decimate a plant overnight unless you are extremely diligent! What deterrent has everyone found to be the best? My only suggestion is the cage idea (you can also get a kit for a similar thing that is a tunnel covered in mesh); this prevents the moths and butterflies from being able to get to the plants. I use it for rocket as well, which gets attacked by white moths. Deirdre

  • By Richard 2112 Tuesday, 22 September 2015

    I grow a couple of the perennial basils - the red pictured, & a green one. It is great to have basil all the year, although theY are fairly dormant in winter & the leaves are smaller than when in full growth in spring & summer. They can be grown long term in pots, which restricts their size a little. They are absolute bee magnets, so do not plant next to steps or busy paths - managed to scoop one into my gumboot once as I walked past, which was quite painful. Cuttings strike in water or pots. Thank for your advice, Richard! Deirdre

  • By Lynsey 2100 Tuesday, 22 September 2015

    Nothing eats my basil (except me) and I"d gladly let them if I could see a few bees as well. Am I the only one noticing this? There do seem fewer bees around at the moment. I don"t want to spray any pesticides that will harm bees (especially chemicals like Confidor), hence my search for other ways to combat pests! Deirdre

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