Gardening: No, I didn’t forget the basil

Ancient Romans knew it as Basiliscus and consumed it on a daily basis to keep themselves safe from the fire-breathing dragon, or Basilisk.

Lettuce leaf basil.

Lettuce leaf basil.

Several weeks ago I wrote about herbs, but given the scope of the topic, I wasn’t able to include each and every one of them.

Some local readers brought this to my attention, and while I didn’t hear any complaints from the savory or tarragon lovers, the whines from the basil aficionados were, to say the least, loud and clear.

To remedy this oversight I have decided to dedicate an entire article on basil, even though those who profess to love this plant usually end up cutting it to pieces and consuming it with copious amounts of Parmesan cheese.

Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is thought to be a native of India and was once a critical ingredient (along with myrrh) in the embalming of Egyptian mummies. Ancient Romans knew it as Basiliscus and consumed it on a daily basis to keep themselves safe from the fire-breathing dragon, or Basilisk.

Colonial Americans used dried powdered basil as a headache-curing snuff and basil oil can be used in warm foot baths as a remedy for nail fungus or athlete’s foot.

Now that I’ve covered the appetizing history of basil, perhaps we should move on to how this herb can be successfully grown here on the ‘wet’ coast.

My first piece of advice is to not plant it outside until the soil and evenings have warmed, as this Asian native will simply rot at the stem, shrivel up and die.

My second piece of advice is the same as the first, as most of you don’t listen very well – this is evidenced by the many people coming back to the nursery to buy yet another replacement basil plant.

If you are really in a hurry or the weather just won’t seem to cooperate (I’ll admit, our ‘June-uary’ is really putting a damper on things), consider growing your basil in a pot with good drainage and preferably a sea soil container mix. That way, you can keep it indoors in a bright window and move it out when the weather improves.

As I alluded to before, basil prefers a full sun exposure (at least five hours) in fertile, well-drained soil that has been turned over, so it is easy to root into.

Slugs love this herb just as much as we do, so sprinkle a little pet-friendly slug bait around your basil at planting.

When they reach about 15 centimetres high, start pinching off the top leaves as this will create bushier plants and ultimately, more pesto.

Blossoms should be cut off as soon as they appear, as flowering diverts the plant’s energy away from making more leaves and container-grown plants should be fertilized once a month with an organic based product.

If possible, harvest only a few leaves at a time for fresh use and save the pesto production for when you have enough volume and just cut the whole plant down.

Now, as to which varieties to grow, that depends on your personal taste. High-brow pesto perfectionists look to only three, that being Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum), ‘Genovese’ (also good for drying) and Lettuce Leaf (O. basilicum var. crispum), with its large (up to 15 cm long) ruffled foliage. Those that like a little more kick seem to prefer Greek (O. basilicum var. minimum ‘Spicy Globe’) or Thai basil, which figures prominently in southeast Asian cuisine.

Tea lovers might like ‘Cinnamon’ basil, while both ‘Red Rubin’ and the variegated ‘Pesto Perpetual’ (Ocimum x citriodorum) work well in fresh salads and soups.

 

Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author (hebe_acer@hotmail.com).

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