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Basil is far more than just a culinary herb. Its pungent aroma is deeply affecting, and evocative — perhaps far more so than floral scents.

It instantly captures our attention and imagination and transports us to summer. It is an emotional scent — refreshing, stimulating and warm. In summer I often pick a leaf just to smell it and find myself carrying it around imbibing its pungent odor repeatedly.

Basil originated in Southeast Asia and central Africa but its use has spread to many parts of the world. Its use with food are many, and cuisines from Italian and Thai to Chinese, all celebrate this herb and wouldn’t be the same without it. Basil has associations not just with food but with those we share it with. Its link with summer is synonymous with long meals outside with family and friends, of leisurely weekends, of picnics.

A simple tomato, onion and French bread sandwich is transformed into a memorable event with the addition of basil. Pesto is synonymous with summer and every jar opened in winter brings back memories of summers bounty. When we think of basils, the classic Italian variety, Genevese, comes to mind for most of us. Yet there is a world of other basils that many are not familiar with.

Thai, lemon, lime, cinnamon, licorice and purple basils are just as easy to grow as Italian varieties and offer many flavor possibilities for our culinary dishes, simple or complex.

Basils are a summer annual and need to be planted when all danger of frost has passed. They are easy to grow from seed, though many people plant them from starts. Unless you are making pesto, three to six plants of each variety should supply a family with all the basil they need. Basils grows best in well-composted soil and regular water. It is highly heat tolerant.

Protect young plants from slugs and snails. If basils are grown in the same place each year, Fusarium wilt can become a problem in some areas, causing the plants to wilt and die. This can be avoided by rotating where you grow them or by planting varieties that are Fusarium resistant. The seed company Johnny’s Selected Seeds has a number of Fusarium resistant varieties. Rotate where they grow from year to yeaer.

There are some tricks to having basil last all season. Basil goes to flower, or bolts around midsummer from an early summer planting. Cut the plants back by one third to one half at this point. Adequately composted, fertilized and watered plants will bounce right back and grow fresh new growth. This can be repeated three times over the course of the growing season. If you have just a few plants, you can cut half the plant back each time, leaving the other half for harvesting.

If you have a larger number of plants, you can cut half of them back at one time, leaving the others to harvest from. Many people just pinch the flowers off, causing the plant to produce more and more smaller flowers. If flowers are not removed, the plants will fizzle out before summers end when it is still prime tomato season.

The ultimate basil

Lemon basil is the ultimate basil. It is worth growing even if you don’t cook. It is lemon beyond lemon and its aroma has the most refreshing complexity. Slightly sweet, but with incredible depth, and as refreshing as mint — its citrus aroma is absolutely transporting. You will find yourself carrying a leaf around to smell it repeatedly. Everything that Italian basil is used for lemon basil can be too. It makes a pesto very much like Italian basils but with a lighter flavor and a lemony hint.

The intense lemon diminishes with cooking and processing. If you grow Sungold cherry tomatoes, try a piece of a lemon basil leaf combined with them. The combination is delicious beyond imagination. These prolific cherry tomatoes make the most rich and flavorful tomato sauce that transforms any pasta dish.

Adding lemon basil makes it truly memorable. Lemon basil is also superb with salmon, bean or pasta salads, and with mint teas. Add it at the end of the cooking period as its flavor diminishes when cooked. Lemon basils leaves are smaller than Genevese basils, so making pesto from it is a bit more work, but worth it.

Other types of basil

Lime basil is very similar to lemon basil, but not as superbly pungent and sweet. Still, it is very good and is a slightly larger, more robust plant. It has white flowers like lemon basil.

Cinnamon basil is a tall, upright plant. Its leaves are licorice and clove scented with a cinnamon overtone. The flowers and stems are purple. It is wonderful in Thai and Chinese dishes, and can be used in a cut flower arrangement.

Thai basil is excellent in Thai food dishes and also can be grown for its beauty. The spicy smell and flavor is deeper, sweeter and richer than cinnamon basil and has a distinct licorice overtone. The plants are smaller, and very dense and robust. Flowers generally do not rob the plants’ vitality as they do for the Italian and lemon varieties. It can be grown as an ornamental. Bees love basil flowers. Thai basil has purple and white flowers.

Deep, dark purple

Purple basil is a deep, dark saturated purple and can be grown as an ornamental. Its colors combine beautifully with many summer annual flowers such as celosias, orange cosmos, zinnias, petunias and more. Worth noting, its flowers do need removing or it will bolt and lose vigor. It has a deeper flavor than Italian basil and is not as robust. Its deep purple leaves make a colorful garnish sure to make any dish more interesting.

There are several varieties of Italian basils. Genevese is the classic Italian variety, and the chief variety used in pesto. Rich, refreshing and pungent, it’s hard to have too much basil in your garden. There are a number of variations of Italian basil. There is a large leaf variety that makes making pesto easy, though its flavor is mild. The leaves are large enough to use to wrap (cook very slightly) ricotta cheese, melon or roasted vegetables. A Greek dwarf variety makes the most perfect annual small hedge. It is super dense and only about 1-foot tall. The flowers are sparse and can be easily trimmed off as needed. The flavor is more spicy than Genevese and has anise overtones. Containers suit this plant perfectly. Use scissors for trimming.

The ultimate ornamental basil is Basil herbalea “Wild Magic” It is a strong, dense, long-blooming plant about 2 feet tall and wide, with purple-black foliage and is covered with sumptuous violet flowers. The flowers are a highlight and should be left on the plant. They don’t diminish from its longevity. Bees absolutely love this basil. The leaves taste like Thai basil but are not as rich. The growth window is narrowing, so if you haven’t planted basils yet, get them in the ground very soon.

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at: katebfrey@gmail.com, freygardens.com, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool

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