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How to Grow Basil (Ocimum Basilicum)

Updated on January 26, 2016
LisaRoppolo profile image

Lisa is a writer and gardener with extensive knowledge of plants and plant care. Her articles focus on easy-care tips for home gardeners.

Basil Origins

A member of the mint family of herbs, basil had been used and cultivated for thousands of years in India before it's spread into Mediterranean and Western cuisine. It is primarily used in Italian and Southeastern Asian (i.e. Thai, Vietnamese) dishes.

Most commercial Basils used today are cultivated by the standard Sweet Basil. There are currently over 160 different cultivars on the market today.

Sweet Basil and similar varieties has a clove-like flavor. Asian varieties such as Cinnamon and Licorice have more of an anise-like flavor and are more pungent.

Genovese Basil
Genovese Basil | Source

Basil Uses

The best way to use basil is fresh; drying loses a lot of flavor. It is also best to use the fresh leaves at the end of cooking. Heating it too long will destroy the flavor and break down the essential oil compounds.

Medicinally, Basil contains a compound known as BCP which is being tested as a treatment for Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Arthritis because of it's anti-inflammatory effects. Basil also contain compounds that are anti-microbial, anti-oxidant and anti-viral. It also is said to repel mosquitoes.

Basil Poll

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Basil Varieties

Basil comes in a wide variety of flavors. Some of the most popular for the home grower are:

  • Sweet Basil
  • Dark Purple Opal Basil
  • Lemon Basil
  • Lime Basil
  • Summerlong Basil
  • Cinnamon Basil
  • Licorice Basil (aka Anise Basil)
  • Thai Basil
  • Spicy Globe Basil

Dark Purple Opal Basil
Dark Purple Opal Basil | Source

Basil Planting and Care

Basil is a super easy plant to start from seed. Generally, the best time is to direct sow in the garden after chances of frost have passed. For Northern gardeners, that is usually around Mother's Day.

Basil does best in full sun and warm summer temperatures. They enjoy moderately moist soil. It can also be grown as a house plant in a sunny, south-facing window.

Deadhead the flowers to keep the plants from going to seed. This will help produce bushier plants and force the Basil to produce more leaves. Most Basil plants grow between 12 and 36 inches tall, although some special hybrid varieties can be less than that (i.e. Spicy Globe Basil and Sumerlong Basil).

Sumerlong Basil
Sumerlong Basil | Source

Did You Know?

The essential oils in the basil plant that produce the strong clove-like scent is made of the same chemical structure that gives actual cloves their scent.

Lemon and Lime basils produce a citrus essential oil that is present in other plants such as lemon mint, lemon balm, citronella and some types of geraniums.

Selecting Plants for your Garden

Since Basil comes in such a wide variety of flavors, I feel it is important to experiment to find the type or types that work best for you. In my own experience some of the best performing varieties are:

Dark Purple Opal: Has a nice mild basil flavor without being too overpowering. It also makes a great ornamental plant in your flower bed. It produces pink flowers when allowed to bloom.

Summerlong: This shorter variety grows only to about 10 inches, but it's flavor more than makes up for it's short stature. The flavor is similar to regular sweet basil. It does great in containers or in areas were you don't have a lot of space.

Lemon: Very strong citrus flavor. Great sprinkled over fish and commonly used in Thai cooking. It also makes a great herbal tea on it's own or blended with other herbs. Some people use it to make basil infused lemonade and desserts.

Cinnamon & Licorice: These varieties produce unique flavors and are pretty to look at. Both varieties have purple stems and small distinct purple-magenta flowers.

Cinnamon Basil
Cinnamon Basil | Source
Licorice Basil
Licorice Basil | Source

A Basic Pesto Recipe

A quick and easy way to use fresh Basil is to make Pesto! You can use the Pesto fresh or freeze it for later.

You will need:

  1. Fresh Basil leaves (about 4 cups)
  2. Pine Nuts (half cup, lightly toasted)
  3. Olive Oil (1/4 to 1/2 cup depending on how it blends)
  4. Parmesan Cheese (1/2 cup grated)
  5. Salt and Pepper (to taste)

The quickest way to do this is in a blender. Combine all ingredients except the olive oil. Blend all ingredients and while the blender is still running, remove the eye of the lid and drizzle in the olive oil until the mixture creates a paste-like consistency. Turn off the blender and use immediately to dress pasta or freeze in freezer bags for future use.


© 2014 Lisa Roppolo

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