Basil is truly an incredible herb. It is enjoyed for its rich and spicy, mildly peppery flavor with a trace of mint and clove. Basil is an annual herb belonging to the mint family, and like others in this family, basil can be identified by its square, hairy stems. There are over 40 known varieties of basil of which Ocimum basilicum or Sweet Basil is the most commonly known and grown. Ocimum is from a Greek verb that means "to be fragrant." The foliage is easily bruised; just brushing against its foliage releases its wonderfully spicy fragrance. Varieties can grow to a height of 2 1/2 feet and are about as wide. Foliage colors range from pale to deep green, vivid purple and even purple laced with goldish yellow foliage. Texture varies from silky and shiny to dull and crinkly. Flowers appear in summer as whorls on the ends of branches and are either white or lavender. Some of the unusual fragrances and flavors include: cinnamon, lemon and anise. Basil is native to India and Asia having been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years. It is grown there as a perennial in those warm, tropical climates.
With so many attributes it isn't any wonder that basil has become increasingly popular over the years.
Basil is easy to grow. It is grown from seed regardless of whether it is started indoors or broadcast outside in the garden after the danger of frost has passed. Basil is very tender and sensitive to frost injury. For indoor culture, sow seeds in a flat, and cover them with a moistened, sterile mix to a depth not more than twice the size of the seed. Space seeds 3/8 to 1/2 inch apart in the flat. Maintain a soil temperature of approximately 70 degrees F. Once germination begins, at 5 to 7 days, the plantlets must be kept warm at 70 degrees F or above and the soil must be kept moist. When seedlings have at least 2 pairs of true leaves, transplant them to 2 inch pots.
Basils grow best in a sunny location and need a well-drained, rich soil. Plants started indoors and hardened off in May can be planted outside to their permanent location and spaced about 12 inches apart. Since moisture is important to a good basil crop, mulching the area will not only discourage weeds but will maintain the moisture level of the soil keeping the plant healthy. To encourage a bushy, healthy plant and to maximize production, don't be afraid to prune basil. Pinch off the flower buds as soon as they begin to emerge. Basil will usually have to be pruned every 2 to 3 weeks.
The ideal time to harvest basil and other herbs that are to be dried, is on a sunny morning immediately after the dew has evaporated and before the day becomes too warm. When harvesting basil, cut it back to about 1/4 inch above a node. Leave enough foliage on the plant so it can continue growing healthy.
There are several methods you can use to dry basil; all methods are relatively simple. First dry basil in small bunches by hanging them upside down in a dark, dry, warm, well ventilated room. Use twine, rubber bands or twist ties to hold the bundles together. Second, you can dry basil leaves on screens placed outside in the shade on a hot day. Cover them with cheesecloth to keep the leaves from blowing away.
Still another method of drying is on a low setting in the microwave. Lay basil on a paper towel and cover it with a paper towel. It could take up to 3 minutes to dry basil in the microwave. Stop periodically throughout the drying process to turn the basil to help promote quicker drying and to avoid burning. It is very difficult to dry herbs without burning them because of hot spots in the microwave. If you smell the herb as it's drying, chances are you have lost many of the fragrant oils. After drying the basil, store in a sealed, preferably dark container away from the heat.
In addition to the drying methods mentioned above, you can also preserve basil by freezing it in ice cubes (nearest to fresh taste when added to cooked foods), putting fresh leaves in vinegar or oil (most useful in salad dressing), and blending it with oil, cheese, and pine nuts, (walnuts or sunflower seeds) to make pesto. Pesto freezes well for six months. Be sure to "seal" your pesto with a layer of olive oil. Dark opal basil makes a beautiful, tangy purple vinegar. Putting herbs in vinegar captures their flavor for the months when fresh herbs are not available.
Basils can be used in the herb garden, flower garden, as borders plants, in containers, raised beds, and in hanging baskets.
Bring the wonderful fragrance of basil indoors by incorporating them in potpourris, sachets, and dried winter bouquets.
The best flavor is found in fresh leaves, but frozen and dried leaves are worth the effort also. The leaves can be used cooked or raw. Crush, chip or mince the leaves and add to recipes, or add whole leaves to salads. Sprigs of basil make a wonderfully aromatic garnish.