Basil (ocimum basilicum)

This star of the summer garden and kitchen is believed to be native to India, tropical Africa, or Asia. A member of the mint family, basil has been cultivated and used in the Mediterranean region for thousands of years.

Ancient Egyptians used the herb in embalming preparations and burned it (with myrrh) in ceremonies to appease the gods. They also used it to scent water for washing their hands and faces. Curiously, the ancient Romans associated basil with love, while the Greeks considered it a symbol of mourning.

The genus name Ocimum is derived from the Greek “to smell,” acknowledging the plant’s powerful aroma. Important varieties include ‘Anise’ (purplish leaves and a sweet licorice scent); ‘Cinnamon’ (pink flowers and a strong cinnamon scent); ‘Genovese’ (considered by many to be the best-flavored basil); ‘Purple Ruffles’ (an ornamental variety with dark purple, fringed leaves); and ‘Lemon’ (citrus-scented leaves).

Large-leaf sweet basil

Large-leaf sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), favored for cooking.

Bush basil

Bush basil (Ocimum minimum) is perfect for pots.

Tulsi or holy basil

Tulsi or holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) is an Ayurvedic adaptogen.

Plant profile

Common Name: Basil, Sweet Basil

Description: Annual with leafy stems, 1 to 2 feet tall, topped with racemes of white flowers; highly fragrant leaves are opposite, oval, and 2 to 3 inches long

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: July to August

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Believed to be native to India, tropical Africa and Asia; cultivated extensively

Culinary use

Basil’s strong fragrance and flavor — sometimes described as a cross between licorice and cloves — make it a favorite in many cuisines. Basil is a primary ingredient in Italian pesto sauce and the French pistou, both of which are made with olive oil and garlic. It is also a key flavoring in many Asian dishes.

Use basil with tomatoes and in tomato-based dishes, or in place of lettuce on sandwiches. It can be used in soups, stews, and seafood dishes, as well as with cooked squash, eggplant, potatoes, carrots, and other vegetables. Add it near the end of cooking to preserve its fresh flavor.

Italians often place fresh basil on the table in a small vase of water to be used as a seasoning, like salt and pepper, during meals. Basil loses much of its flavor when dried. To enjoy the herb throughout the winter, chop the leaves of freshly harvested basil and put them in an ice cube tray. Fill the tray with water and freeze for later use in soups, stews, and sauces.

Medicinal use

Basil is a good source of vitamins A and C. The leaves, rich in volatile oils, are used to improve digestion. The herb may help relax intestinal spasms and relieve gas, bloating, and nausea. It is also useful as a treatment for intestinal parasites.

Basil has antiseptic and antibacterial properties. A poultice of the crushed leaves can be used to treat acne or applied to insect bites to relieve itching. Several commercially available topical healing preparations contain extract of basil.

This herb is also used to help reduce fevers and relieve colds, coughs, and flu symptoms. It has mild sedative properties, as well, and has been used to treat anxiety, depression, and insomnia. In aromatherapy, essential oil of basil can be added to massage oil and used externally to relax muscles.

Caution: Basil essential oil should not be used internally, nor should it be used in any form during pregnancy. It should always be heavily diluted in a carrier oil and never applied directly, in its pure form, to your skin. It contains the compound estragole, which evidence shows may be a carcinogen and mutagen (causing mutation). If used in excess, the oil can be stupefying — causing confusion or worse.

Other uses

Basil essential oil is used in some soaps, perfumes, and cosmetics. Many people believe that its scent is uplifting. In Italy and Greece, the aromatic herb is commonly grown in pots on porches or windowsills to help repel flies and mosquitoes. Try rubbing the fresh leaves on your clothing to do the same. Or apply a few drops of a diluted tincture of basil leaves to your clothing, being careful to avoid contact with your skin. You can also try filling your aromatherapy diffuser with basil oil and putting it outdoors on a balmy summer day when mosquitoes are around.

How to grow it

Basil prefers light, rich, well-drained to slightly dry soil in full sun. Plant seeds or set out transplants only after all danger of frost has passed and soil temperature is at least 50°F. In areas where the growing season is short, seeds can be started indoors 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost date.

For the strongest flavor, harvest sprigs before flower buds form. Pinching back the stem tips every 2 to 3 weeks will encourage strong, bushy growth. Keep the cut stems in a vase with a little water on your kitchen counter; the leaves will remain in good condition for up to 5 days. To enjoy fresh basil throughout the winter, root cuttings in water, then grow the potted cuttings in a bright, warm location.