Basil is an annual and a member of the mint family. It prefers full sun, but will tolerate partial shade. It likes the heat, but it doesn’t tolerate the cold. Basil prefers moist, well-drained soil, and can be grown in containers with other herbs indoors or outside. It makes a good companion plant for tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers.

There about 150 varieties of basil. Its leaves are mainly green, but also come in bronze and purple varieties. Sweet basil is the most common. Basil comes from a Greek word, meaning “royal or kingly plant,” and it is known as the “king of herbs.” Along with basil’s wonderful fragrances and flavors, basil flowers and foliage are also beautiful. Some varieties, like this Purple Petra basil, are used as attractive ornamentals in the summer landscape, and to add interest to cut flower arrangements.

Basil is also thought to have many health-promoting properties and is full of essential vitamins, such as A, K and C, and minerals including magnesium, iron, potassium and calcium. Ancient Egyptians used it as a medicine for snakebites and scorpion stings.

Back in the days of King Henry VIII, farmers’ wives often gave little pots of basil as graceful gifts to visitors. In present-day Italy, basil is a symbol of love, but it represented hatred in ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks depicted poverty as a ragged woman with basil at her side. Both the early Greeks and Romans thought the plant would grow only if the gardener shouted and cursed while sowing the seeds.

Basil is a “pick and come again” plant. Pick the topmost leaves first; it’s best to pick a few leaves off each plant, rather than all of the leaves off one plant. The flower buds should be pinched off, as the production of flowers can cause the leaf flavor to decline. Bees love the flowers, though. Prune the plants every two to three weeks to make them bushier. Cut them back about ¼” above a leaf node. If grown indoors, the plant needs a minimum of four hours of bright light in a location away from drafts.

Fresh: Use whole leaves as a garnish, or chop and sprinkle on tomatoes, eggs, cheese dishes, and even in fruit jams. Best known for pesto sauce.

Dried: Basil loses much of its flavor when dried. Tie bunches together and hang them upside down in a dry place out of sunlight for a week or so. Basil retains its flavor best if stored as whole leaves, and then crushed at time of use. Store in tightly sealed glass jars away from heat and light.

Freezing: Chop two cups of leaves in a food processor, add ½ cup of olive oil to create a smooth paste, then freeze in ice cube trays. When solid, the cubes can be put in a freezer bag and used in soups, stews, sauces, etc. Best to use within six months.

Vinegar & Oil: Stalks of basil can be added to bottles of white vinegar to use on salads. Allow the basil to steep for at least two weeks before using. Works well with olive oil, too.

One of the most popular uses for basil is for pesto sauce. We’ve posted a simple homemade pesto recipe.

Basil will likely be the most popular plant in your herb garden.

Basil show on KTVB set:

Sweet Basil - Most popular for cooking, especially in Italian dishes, soups and pesto sauce.
Purple Petra Basil - Similar flavor to Sweet Basil, but dark, purple leaves add interest in dishes and arrangements.
Cinnamon Basil - Good in fruit salads and floral arrangements.
Thai Basil - Distinct spicy, anise-clove flavor. Excellent in Asian cuisine. Purple stems with green leaves.
Lime Basil – Lime scent goes great with fish and chicken.
(Others include: Lemon, Chocolate and Licorice)

HOMEMADE PESTO SAUCE (makes about 1 cup)

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
2 large cloves of garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tightly packed cups fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup fresh, finely grated Parmesan cheese.

In a food processor or blender, combine the oil, garlic, salt and pine nuts; blend until smooth. Add the basil, being careful not to over-process the leaves. Mix in cheese just before serving. Tastes best if allowed to stand in refrigerator for an hour before use.