Ocimum basilicum - Basil

Native of Pacific Islands
Family: Labiatae

Appearance: Basil grows into a bushy plant 6 inches to several feet high. It has opposite, oval leaves with pointed tips and spikes of small white or pink flowers.

Growing Know-How: For best results, plant basil outdoors in a sunny site, but it will tolerate light shade. Give it moist but well-drained, fertile soil. Fertilize with a water-soluble, organic fertilizer each time you harvest. Pinch off the growing tips to make the plant bushier; remove all flower spikes to prolong harvest. The plants will die with the first fall frost unless you bring them indoors.


Propagation: Grow basil from seed or cuttings. For a head start on the growing season, start seedlings indoors 4 to 6 weeks before the last spring frost.

Varieties and Cultivars: Many cultivars of basil are now readily available. Below are several of the most popular ones.

Sweet basil
Sweet basil varieties have glossy leaves and full basil flavor. One excellent cultivar is 'Genovese'.

Lettuce-leaf basil (O. b. var. crispum)
Lettuce-leaf basil has extra-broad leaves. Cultivars include 'Mammoth', slow-bolting 'Napoletano', and much-ruffled 'Green Ruffles'.

Bush basils
Bush basils, which make good edgings, range from 3 to 12 inches high. They include 'Spicy Globe', 'Bush', 'Tiny Leaf Purple', 'Green Bouquet', and 'Piccolo Fine Verde'.

Lemon basil 'Citriodorum'
Lemon basil 'Citriodorum' has light green leaves and a lemony fragrance. Direct-sow this basil seed so you don't disturb the sensitive roots. The leaves are great in vinegars, potpourri, fruit salad, fish, poultry, and herb teas.

Purple basil
Purple basil has purple foliage and pink flowers. It brings a lot of color to the herb garden and makes a wonderful red herbal vinegar. Some cultivars include 'Purpurascens', much-ruffled 'Purple Ruffles', 'Opal', and dwarf 'Minimum Purpurascens'.

Fragrant basils
Fragrant basils for special kinds of cooking and potpourri include purple-stemmed anise basil, cinnamon basil, and Thai basil.

Thai basil (O. citriodorum 'Thai') is an annual native to Thailand and Burma. It has a darker leaf than common basil and a slight anise flavor. It is used extensively in Thai and Indian cooking.

Potential Problems: Japanese beetles can be a pest. Handpick beetles and put them into a container of soapy water and leave overnight to drown.

Harvesting and Using: Cut off the branch tips every few weeks and use the leaves fresh, frozen, or dried with meat, tomatoes, beans, eggs, eggplant, onions, potatoes, salads, cornbread, butters, vinegars, pesto, pasta, or potpourri. Dry the flower heads for wreaths. If you can't use all the basil you harvested right away, place the stems in water on the kitchen counter for a day or two. It doesn't refrigerate well.

Related Herbs: Holy basil (O. sanctum) has narrower oval leaves and pink flowers with a perfumed fragrance that's nice in potpourri. It gets to be about 18 inches high.