Basil is a well-known culinary herb that’s popular in many Italian dishes. But did you know that there are many other uses of this herb, including its use as a tonic to aid in digestion?
The most common use of basil is for cooking, such as in tomato sauce, pesto, or vinegars. But it also can be sprinkled over salads and sliced tomatoes, either whole or chopped. Actually, don’t chop the leaves, but tear them instead for the most flavor.
To make oil for salads, pound the fresh leaves and mix with a good salad or vegetable oil. If freezing the leaves, coat them with olive oil first. Leaves also can be dried and stored in salt.
In the landscape, don’t merely relegate basil to the herb or vegetable garden. Consider planting it in scented gardens, or use it as edging along a bed or path that you’ll brush past and release the aroma. Or try mass plantings of basil in a border, plant in decorative outdoor containers, or grow in pots indoors, if you have lots of light. In ancient times, pots of basil on the windowsill were used to deter flies.
Other uses of basil include the cosmetic. Put fresh leaves in a hot bath as an infusion, for example. As a tonic, steep a few leaves in wine for several hours. Or steep in water as a tea to aid digestion. A drop of basil oil on shirtsleeves will help counteract mental fatigue.
Common Basil, also referred to as Sweet Basil, grows at a moderate rate. Depending on which of the many cultivars you grow, plants can be either upright or mounded. ‘Green Globe’ is a compact mound, only about a foot high, and great for edging. The foliage is green to purple, again depending on cultivar, and distinctly aromatic.
‘Purple Ruffles’ is a popular cultivar with both purple foliage and ruffled edges to the leaves. The flowers are terminal, spike-like racemes that are usually purple or white.
Basil can be propagated from seed. Sow seeds eight to ten weeks before planting outside in a well-drained soil. Or sow directly in the garden. Your site should have rich, well-drained soil with plenty of sunlight for several hours a day.
Throughout the season, remove flower spikes to promote increased growth and branching. Pruning the plants every two to three weeks also will promote growth. Basil does not tolerate frost well, so if you want to overwinter, take stem cuttings late in the season. Thinking about growing basil? Then try one of these five main species of basil:
* Lemon Basil (Ocimum americanum) has a bushy habit, grows to two feet tall, and has an intense lemony fragrance.
* Camphor Basil (Ocimum kilmandscharicum) is an annual shrub reaching about five feet tall in a season. It becomes woody with camphor-scented leaves that can be used in sachets to protect woolens and as a tea for stomach aches.
* Tree Basil (Ocimum grattissimum) is similar to Camphor Basil and has fuzzy, lime-green leaves scented like pennyroyal. A tea of its leaves is used for colds and fevers, the leaves are burned to repel mosquitoes, and the thymol content of one cultivar makes this useful for wounds, gargling, and conjunctivitis.
* Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum or sanctum) is an annual shrub with spicy clove-like scented leaves that reaches two feet in height. It is the sacred basil of the Hindus, who use it in both cooking and medicines.
* Bush Basil (Ocimum basilicum)–also known as Sweet or Common Basil–is native to the Old World Tropics (India, Africa, Asia). In India it is believed to hold divine essence. In some Greek Orthodox churches it is used to prepare holy water, as it was found growing around Christ’s tomb after the Resurrection. In Haiti, Bush Basil is associated with a pagan love goddess named Erzulie, and in Mexico it is used in potions to attract lovers.
THE MANY USES OF BASIL
By Ailene King, Student Intern and Dr. Leonard Perry
Extension Nursery and Greenhouse Crops Specialist
University of Vermont