Fact sheet: Basil
Basil is a tender low-growing herb Lamiaceae. that is grown as a perennial in warm, tropical climates. Basil is originally native to India and other tropicl regions of Asia, having been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years. There are many varieties of basil, that which is used in Italian food is typically called sweet basil, as opposed to Thai basil which is used in Asia. The plant tastes somewhat like anise, with a strong, pungent, sweet smell. Basil is very sensitive to cold, with best growth in hot, dry conditions. While most common varieties are treated as annuals, some are perennial , includingAfrican Blue and Holy Thai basil.
The word basil comes from the Greek βασιλεύς (basileus), meaning “king”, as it is believed to have grown above the spot where St. Constantine and Helen discovered the Holy Cross. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes speculations that basil may have been used in “some royal unguent, bath, or medicine”. Basil is still considered the “king of herbs” by many cookery authors. An alternative etymology has “basil” coming from the Latin word basilicus, meaning dragon and being the root for basilisk, but this likely was a linguistic reworking of the word as brought from Greece.
Basil thrives in hot weather, but behaves as an annual if there is any chance of a frost. It fares best in a well-drained sunny spot. Although basil will grow best outdoors, it can be grown indoors in a pot and, like most herbs, will do best on an equator-facing windowsill. It should be kept away from extremely cold drafts, and grows best in strong sunlight, If its leaves have wilted from lack of water, it will recover if watered thoroughly and placed in a sunny location. Yellow leaves towards the bottom of the plant are an indication that the plant needs more sunlight or less fertilizer.
In sunny climates basil will thrive when planted outside. It also thrives over the summertime in the central and northern United States, but dies out when temperatures reach freezing point. It will grow back the next year if allowed to go to seed. It will need regular watering, but not as much attention as is needed in other climates. Basil can also be propagated very reliably from cuttings, with the stems of short cuttings suspended for two weeks or so in water until roots develop.
Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum)—large-leafed Mediterranean variety, redolent of licorice and clove—the primary culinary basil, it is much used in Italian cuisine. It grows to a height of 2-2 ½ feet.
Purple or Opal Basil (Ocimum basilicum purpurea)—similar to sweet basil, but with dark bronze-purple leaves. Good for color contrast. Not visually suitable for pesto. A somewhat more tender variety, it grows to about the same height as sweet basil.
Lemon or Lime Basil (Ocimum basilicum citriodorum)—a smaller plant (12 in.) with a mild citrus aroma and flavor. It is often paired with grilled fish.
Greek or Globe basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Spicy Globe’)—another smaller plant (6-12 in.) which has tiny, compact leaves, and a spicy character—very useful for salads, with soft stems. Compact size makes it a good container plant.
Cinnamon Basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’)—another spicy variety, with a pronounced cinnamon flavor. It grows to 18-30 in.
Thai Basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Siam Queen’) – very spicy, with an unusual serrated leaf. Used in Thai and Indian cooking. Grows to 2-3 feet.
Planted in Nassau County Extension Demonstration Garden
Sold at Nassau County Master Gardener Plant Sale