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.