Basil, is a common name for the culinary herb Ocimum basilicum. Easily recognized by its aromatic, green, oval-pointed leaves, basil is found many foods including pasta, salads, cocktails, teas, Thai food and more. It’s best known as the pungent flavor ingredient in pesto; a spread made from basil, pine nuts, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese. There are about 150 species, mostly from Asia,
Africa, and South America that have spread throughout the world as culinary and medicinal herbs. All varieties are aromatic and worthy of a place in the garden or patio. In tropical climates many varieties considered “annual” can grow over a year if properly cut back and cared for.
Below are descriptions of the most common varieties of basil.
Sweet Basil –(Ocimum basilicum) The most common of the basils and the most often used, Sweet Basil has a pleasant clove-like flavor that is pungent, strong and slightly spicy. Plants grow to 2.5 feet in height by flowering time. Genovese Basil is a variety of sweet basil that originated in Italy. This specialized European strain has less of a tendency to become bitter after long, slow periods of cooking.
Purple Basil –(Ocimum basilicum `Purpurascens’) This is a pleasant dark purple/bronze colored basil that provides a striking contrast to the greens of the garden. It reaches a mature height of 15-18 inches with white flower spikes.
Dwarf Bush Basil –(Ocimum basilicum `Minimum’) This basil grows in the form of a globe and normally doesn’t exceed 8-10 inches in height. The leaves are small and the flavor is mild. It grows well in pots and is a nice addition to the indoor kitchen garden. In the late summer bush basil will develop white flowers which should be pinched off to encourage more leaf growth.
Lemon Basil — (Ocimum basilicum `Citriodorum’) The lemon flavor of this basil makes it a very noticeable addition to the garden. Lemon basil only grows up to 18 inches, and has white blossoms in the summer.
Clove Basil – (Ocimum gratissimum) A large, robust variety with felt like grayish green leaves and a strong spicy clove flavor. It’s also known as East Indian Basil, Fever Plant, Shrubby Basil, Mosquito Plant, Tree Basil. They are cut just before flowering begins and dried or distilled for oil. Leaves are picked during the growing season and used fresh or juiced, or dried for infusions and decoctions.
Lettuce Leaf Basil –(Ocimum crispum) The lettuce leaf basil is the most robust of the group. The 3-4 inch leaves are puffed and crinkled like lettuce leaves. The white flower spikes should be continuously removed to improve harvest.
Holy Basil –(Ocimum sanctum) Holy basil can be used in cooking but the taste is different from sweet basil. Native to India, its rich aromatic scent is enjoyable just for itself. It also has a rich history in Ayurveda traditions. Holy basil will grow to 18 inches and blooms in summer with pinkish/purple flowers.
Camphor Basil — (Ocimum kilimandscharicum) This is an ornamental herb not generally used for cooking. The long (3 inch), hairy, light green or gray-green leaves give the strong camphor scent. The plant can grow to 3.5 feet and has small white flowers.
Basil has a variety of nutrition properties and some possible medicinal benefits as well. Human clinical trials with basil extracts are sparse, however many positive effects have been observed in test animals and petri dishes. Instead of pasting an exciting list of poorly verified claims found on other internet “health” sites, here’s a list of what science knows.
- Basil has an excellent Omega-3 (16mg) to Omega-6(4mg) fatty acid ratio per 5 grams of fresh chopped leaves. It tops the list for all common herbs and spices.
- Basil is a significant source of Vitamin K. Known as “the clotting vitamin”, it’s need to synthesis proteins related to blood coagulation. It’s also a shot given to babies to prevent an internal bleeding issue due to a newborn Vitamin K deficiency.
- Extracted essential oils have been shown to inhibit growth of dangerous microbes including, Staphylococcus aurous, Bacillus cereus, Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas euriginosa.
- Some Ayurvedic medical claims are supported by a few study showing a hypoglycemic effect of “Holy Basil” extract. Pending more research, it could aid diabetics and those trying to manage their glycemic response.
- Eugenol is a compound that gives basil its distinctive aroma. It’s also the active molecule responsible for an anti-inflammatory effect observed in lab mice. In addition Eugenol was shown to increase their pain threshold.
- Basil extracts were found to be equally effective against gastric and duodenal ulcers in rats. Its activity was comparable to ranitidine (Zantac). This suggests that these extracts could be a useful drug for treating peptic ulcers.
Check out the sources at the bottom of page if you’d like to read the studies.
Basil is an awesome plant to have in your garden. It’s an easy addition to salads, soups, stews, meats and pasta/pizza sauces. (It’s also an epic addition to pineapple blender drinks….a family favorite!) It also makes a great companion plant. Plant alongside tomatoes to improve growth and flavor. It also does well with peppers, oregano, asparagus and petunias. It’s rumored to repel mosquitoes, but we’ve yet to see this.
How To Grow Basil?
Basil loves full sun and can grow in a variety of soils. Common breeds of sweet basil are very forgiving. It’s easy to grow from seed or propagate from cuttings (see the video below for instructions).
Pinching back the flowers will encourage growth and increase harvest. When it flowers, it starts going to seed and begin its death cycle so be sure and cut at the main stalks instead of only removing the leaves. In our experience, sweet basil, purple basil and Genovese basil can be cut back vigorously, while lemon, clove and spice varieties are more sensitive. Also Basil loves aquaponic systems!
Frost will kill basil. One northerner solution is to bring one inside, propagate it via cutting and have multiple plants ready by springtime.
Virgina Tech Ext. – Basil Varieties(1997, Jenny Schuster, Extension Technicion, Consumer Horticulture, V. Tech)
Evaluation of Hypoglycemic and Antioxidant Effect of Ocimum Sanctum (Tested on rabbits)