Tired of the same old herbs? Why not experiment with the King of Herbs, basil, and all its unusual and interesting varieties this summer?
Basil is truly the king of herbs with its Latin name - basileus - widely understood to mean 'king' or 'emperor'. Originally cultivated around 3000 years ago in India, the Middle East, and some Pacific Islands, basil only came to western Europe in the sixteenth century with the spice traders.
Basil is truly a staple of the summer herb garden with the large-leafed sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) as the most commonly used culinary variety. Few people are aware of the many other annual and perennial varieties with different flavours, shapes, and colours.
Annual means ‘yearly’ or ‘once a year’ and in the case of plants, this means that the plant will only last for one year and needs to be replanted every year. Most annual basils are cultivars of the species Ocimum basilicum. They need to be replanted every Spring because they are frost sensitive and they should be added to culinary dishes at the very ends as prolonged heat will result in lost flavour and fragrance.
- Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum)
The most common basil around that we spot on grocery store shelves or buy in garden centres.
- Lemon basil (Ocimum americanum)
Very similar to sweet basil in its cultivation and growth habit but with an added lemon flavour and aroma to the leaves. The leaves can be added to nearly any dish that needs a bit of lemon and is also delicious as a tea.
- Cinnamon basil (Ocimum basilicum 'cinnamon')
One of the most beautiful and attractive varieties, cinnamon basil shows off with beautiful pink flowers and cinnamon-scented leaves. Commonly used in teas, baked good and any dish looking for a sweet-spicy flavour.
- Red rubin | Dark opal (Ocimum basilicum var. pupurascens)
Another beautiful and attractive variety. Red basil has stunning pink flowers and dark opal coloured leaves. They require more sun than the other varieties due to a lack of chlorophyll in the leaves.
- Thai basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora)
Commonly used in Thai green and red curries this basil variety has green leaves with square purple stems and deep purple flowers. The aroma is said to be a cross between cinnamon and anise.
- African basil (Ocimum gratissimum)
A larger than average basil with the nickname ‘Tree basil’. It is very aromatic with the oils in the leaves giving off an intense clove aroma with occasional notes of thyme.
Perennial means a plant will live for more than two years. There are only three types of perennial basil that will survive winter if protected from frost or planted in a sunny position. They have tougher leaves than the annual varieties and can thus be added earlier to a culinary dish in the cooking process.
- Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
Commonly known as Tulsi, this is a useful houseplant with medicinal properties, a spicy and refreshing fragrance, and beautiful tiny flowers.
- Pink or White perennial basil (Ocimum basilicum spp.)
Beautiful spikes of flowers cover this rather large (1.5 high and almost as wide) bush. A wonderful addition to the flower and bee-friendly garden.
- Greek columnar basil (Ocimum basilicum spp.)
This basil has a similar taste to sweet basil, is easy to cultivate and a perfect a addition to a small or medium sized herb garden.
Basil can be grown indoors on a sunny windowsill or outdoors in a full sun.
A good companion for tomatoes, beans, cabbage, marigold, and even rue.
Remove flowers when they appear otherwise the plant will go to seed.
Harvest continuously as this will stimulate new growth.
Basil is a good container plant but should not be left in full sun for the whole day - water twice a week and feed twice a month.
Bees LOVE basil!!
This heady, fragrant herb has endless culinary uses and repays a certain amount of experimentation in the kitchen.
If you are looking for a rewarding, but easy herb to try out that will have an added bonus of attracting bees to your garden - you can’t go wrong with basil!