Fragrant and flavorful, basil comes in a dizzying variety of tastes and colors, all of them good. This sun and heat-loving annual herb is the essence of summer, pairing so well with the season’s garden vegetables. Dishes like pizza just wouldn’t be pizza without a good layer of fresh basil to help bring out alI the flavors of those savory “pies.” And then there’s the classic combo of summer’s gorgeous garden-ripened tomatoes paired with fresh basil from the garden or those cool pasta salads with zesty basil, or fresh and fragrant pesto. It’s enough to make one’s mouth water. I know I will be starting seeds of several varieties soon in anticipation of the coming growing season.

Like your basil sweet and mild? There’s a basil for that. Like your basil colorful, rich and spicy? There’s a basil for that. Like your basil lemony-fresh? Well, there’s a basil for that, too. There is a basil for just about anything from mixing up with pasta and tomato dishes, to delicate accents and flavoring for sorbets or vinegars, to basils with a cinnamon twang and even medicinal varieties for tummy aches. It’s possible that there are more varieties of basil than of any other herb. Richter’s Seeds (richtersseeds.com) lists a whopping 68 varieties of basil from which to choose, There’s everything from tiny, fine-leaved to luscious, deep-purple, ruffled-leaved basils and citrus-tinted choices.

Recently, I discovered something about one of my all-time favorites, Mrs. Burns’ lemon basil. From the spring catalog of Native Seeds Search comes Barney T. Burns’ story of his mother, Mrs. Burns herself. He relates that Janet Ann Burns received seeds for a lemon basil from a neighbor, Mrs. Clifton, who reportedly had been growing the fragrant variety in New Mexico since the 1920s. The source suggests the variety might have origins in England, Thailand or India. Somewhat difficult to grow, and cold tender, the Mrs. Burns’ lemon basil was added to the Native Seeds Search in 1983, ensuring that this delicate and fragrant basil wouldn’t be lost so that gardeners all over could grow and enjoy this delicate lemony basil. And I was glad to hear that there really was a Mrs. Burns who grew my favorite basil, too.

Most edible basils are cultivars of the species Ocimum basilicum. While usually basil is thought of as a culinary herb, some basils are used medicinally, like ‘Alvaaka’ basil which makes a licorice-flavored tea for stomach ailments, and Mayo/Yoeme basil which is reported to be “strong smelling,” though its attractive pink blooms make it a nice addition to any flower bed. Both of these unusual basils are available from Native Seeds Search (nativeseed.org). Several basil varieties are reported to have antibacterial and antispasmodic properties.

As great as basils are for culinary uses, don’t overlook basil when it comes to ornamental plantings. Basils, like ‘Opal,’ ‘Red Rubin,’ “Purple Ruffles’ or ‘Amethyst Improved’ all sport rich purple foliage that contrasts well with lettuces or other plants in the vegetable garden or ornamentals in flower beds, borders or container plantings. Fine-leaved varieties such as ‘Pistou’ or ‘Spicy Bush’ make handsome border plants (seeds of these and other basils available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, johnnyseeds.com). According to the National Garden Bureau (NGB) the tiny-leaved basils produce small, six-inch mounds and are unmatched as edging plants. These small globe basils have a delicate flavor that is best used fresh.

Basil asks for nothing more in the garden than full sun and well-drained soil. Basil grows quickly from seed, and multiple seedlings provide a season long harvest. Basil thrives on warm weather and is frost sensitive. Starting basil from seeds is the best way to get a range of choice. Start seeds indoors and transplant or pot up and place outside once all danger of frost has passed. Or go the quick route and start with basil seedlings. Here are some basil-growing and use suggestions from the NGB:

• Harvest basil just before flower buds form and continue harvesting to keep the plant producing in a bushy form. Once the plant begins to expend energy in flower and seed production it will lose some of its potency.

• Cut or pinch basil just above a leaf or pair of leaves, removing no more than a quarter of the plant, recommends the NGB. This leaves plenty of foliage to keep the plant healthy and looking good. I like to keep a glass of basil cuttings by the kitchen window, both for ease of use, and because some basils, especially Mrs. Burns’ lemon basil, root readily to make even more plants.

• To preserve basil, you can air dry, oven-dry or freeze: Simple air drying preserves the basil taste for use all winter. Rinse leaves in cool water, gently shake off extra moisture. When thoroughly dry, tie a handful of stems firmly into a bundle. Place bundle in a paper bag, gathering the top of the bag around the stems then tie again. Label and hang to dry where the temperature doesn’t get above 80 degrees F. After two to four weeks, the herbs should be dry and crumbly.

• To oven-dry, place leaves on a cookie sheet and put into a 180-degree oven for three to four hours, leaving the door ajar. Once basil is dried, store in an airtight container in a cool, dark cabinet. Keep the leaves whole if possible to preserve the oils.

• To retain just-picked flavor, freeze basil in water or olive oil. Put a handful of washed leaves in a food processor with enough water or oil to make a slurry. When processed, pour into ice cube trays to freeze. Once frozen, store in a well-labeled freezer container. You can also make your favorite pesto recipe and freeze the final product.

• There are also many popular herb vinegar recipes available as yet another way to preserve your basil harvest for months to come.

Basil has been enjoyed for centuries, and is an important element of many ethnic cuisines. This fragrant herb enjoys a rich history in folklore. In many cultures it is common to use basil as a symbol for love, holiness, purity, and sanctity, among many others. It’s difficult to imagine an herb with more purpose. A world of basil awaits our discovery, delight and a bushel of uses to boot.

Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award and the Florida Magazine Association’s Silver Award of Writing Excellence. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association, and she gardens in Camden.

 


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