Cooperative Extension Service 
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Extension P. O. Box 68 LaBelle, Florida 33975-0068 Phone (863) 674-4092

Hendry County Horticulture News

Basil - King Of the Herbs

Highly esteemed by gardeners, basil is considered by some to be the king of herbs.  Highly versatile, basil can fill a number of roles, some varieties are highly ornamental, fragrant branches of basil can add interest to bouquets, and, of course, basil has an essential place in the kitchen.  There are more than fifty species of basil (Ocimum spp.).  They differ in growth habit, color and aromatic composition.  Basil is a member of the mint family and is native to India, Africa and Asia, but has a long, rich history of legend and use worldwide.

No herb garden is complete without basil.  This flavorful herb can be  traced back to Aristotle, in ancient Greece, who called it "basilikon", which means "royal".  In India, basil is considered a sacred herb and is offered in reverence to the Hindu gods, Vishnu and Krishna.  At one time, it was used to protect the dead from evil and is still found growing around Hindu temples.  Basil is often considered a symbol of love.  In Haiti, basil plants are used as an offering to Erzulie, the voodoo goddess of love.  In Italy, a pot of basil placed on a balcony signaled that a woman was ready to receive suitors.  A word of caution to those who dabble with the language of flowers to send messages.  Basil may also be used as an emblem of hatred for an enemy.

Besides having extraordinary taste, basil is easy to grow.  It is not only suited to the herb or vegetable garden, but the numerous shapes and sizes make it an excellent addition to a perennial garden, shrub border or container garden.  Plant basil into unused garden corners, display it among vegetables, edge a flower bed, or plant it as an aromatic ground cover along a path where it will gently release it's unique aroma when brushed against.

Smaller cultivars make superb edging for perennial borders or the vegetable garden, or a handsome contrast in containers of flowers.  Plant a large maroon leafed basil between ruby lettuce and leeks for a splash of color.  Cinnamon basil and orange scented geraniums in a sunny container radiate the scent of warm orange cinnamon rolls.  Use basil as a backdrop for bright annuals or summer flowering bulbs in pots or baskets.

Basil is a tender annual with a height of six inches to several feet tall, depending on the particular cultivar.  Flowers are spikes of small white, pink or purple, blooming from mid-summer to fall.  Leaves also vary in color and size according to cultivar, ranging from small, light green and smooth to large, serrated and dark purple.  The flower and fragrance is considered spicy, sweet with overtones of pepper, mint, and sometimes licorice.

Basil is easy to grow but it doesn't like cool weather.  Basil will thrive in any sunny, well drained location.  Basil prefers light sandy or loam soils, with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5.  The soil should be kept moist for good germination.  Plants will emerge within a few days in warm weather. Early Greeks and Romans believed that a good basil crop would only develop if the gardener shouted and cursed while sowing the seeds.  While this is not necessary, basil cannot tolerate drought stress and uniform soil moisture will ensure good growth.  Mulching will help guarantee favorable soil moisture, prevent weed growth and keep the foliage clean.  Apply two to two and half pounds of a complete fertilizer such as 6-6-6 or 8-8-8 per 100 sq. ft. of bed.  Do not over fertilize as this will produce rank growth which will result in less flavorful basil.

Harvest basil just as the flower buds begin to form, when the leaves contain the most concentrated oils and provide the best flavor and fragrance.  You can harvest the entire plant or cut or pinch basil just above a leaf or pair of leaves, removing no more than a quarter of the plant.  This leaves plenty of foliage to keep the plant healthy and looking good when used as a landscape plant.

Simple air drying will preserve basil for later use. Rinse the leaves in cool water and gently shake off extra moisture.  When thoroughly dry, tie a handful of stems firmly into a bundle.  Place the bundle in a paper bag, gathering the top of the bag around the stems and tying again.  Hang the bag in a dry place where the temperature doesn't get above 80 degrees. After a few weeks, the herbs should be dry and crumbly.  Once basil is dried, store it in an airtight container in a cool, dark cupboard.  Keep the leaves whole to preserve the oils, and crush or grind only when using them.

Basil is relatively pest free.  Other than the occasional worm or aphids,  fusarium wilt can cause basil to suddenly wilt and die without apparent cause.  An infected plant will usually show stunted growth before wilting and later disease stages will display black to brown stem lesions. The pathogen, Fusarium oxysporum f.s. basilicum, is specific to basil and will not harm tomatoes, eggplants or peppers.  Be sure to by clean seed and healthy plants and rotate planting locations to prevent the disease.

Basil is used fresh, dried or frozen in tomato dishes, for pesto, eggs, soups, salads, salad dressings, meats, and potatoes.  Its stems and leaves can be used in flavored vinegar and oils.  There are also  medicinal uses.  According to some people, an infusion of one teaspoon of leaves can be used to aid digestion and reduce fevers,.  The essential oil of basil is used to treat skin conditions such as acne.  Basil can also be added as a fragrance in potpourris.  Good luck and good gardening.

Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service.  Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975,  e-mail - or phone 863-674-4092 or  863-983-1598.  You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle.   Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.

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