The delightful smell of fresh basil greeted over 30 Dallas County Master Gardners as they feasted on a delicious basil based light lunch (recipes will be forthcoming) and learned all about basil from our own Basil Queen, Paula. The first topic in her talk was: just how do you pronounce “basil.” Is it “basil” with a long “a” (bay-sil) or with a short “a” (baa-sil)? According to Paula, either pronunciation is correct—- and however you pronounce it, fresh basil is delicious.
Basil has a long and varied history. It is mentioned in literature pre 206 BCE. The Greeks and Romans used it as a symbol of hatred. They said that the gardener had to rant, rave and cuss when planting it. As the centuries passed, basil became the symbol for love in Italy. Young women would put a sprig of basil on their clothes to proclaim their chastity. However, centuries’ later, in a complete symbolic reversal, women would put a pot of basil on their window sill when they were “entertaining” their lovers. Voodoo priestesses used basil in their rituals as a symbol of love and devotion; while in Victorian times basil symbolized “best wishes” when given to a friend. In Europe, basil was said to keep evil spirits away and, if a man carried basil in his pocket, it was supposed to bring him wealth. (Paula tried this with her husband.)
Low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, basil is high in many nutrients such as riboflavin and Vitamins E and A. However, Paula warned that it is also high in Vitamin K and should not be consumed by people who are on the blood thinner Coumadin.
With over 150 varieties of basil, ranging from a shrub to compact varieties, with many different flavors, there is a basil variety for every taste and place in the garden. Paula has found that though basil likes full sun, it will even grow in part shade. Though most basils are annuals in Dallas, there is one type, a Bell Pepper basil, that can be grown as a perennial if well mulched in the winter.
Some of Paula’s favorite basils are:
Aussie Sweet Basil: This is a columnar/upright basil that grows about 24 inches tall and is only 8-10 inches wide. It does not set seed quite as quickly as some other varieties.
African Blue Basil: Primarily a landscape rather than culinary variety, this basil is grown by Paula to attract butterflies and bees.
Holy Basil: Used in Hindu and Muslim burial rituals, this clove/spicy basil is best used in potpourris and as a mosquito repellent. Just rub a few leaves on your skin.
Sweet Basil: This type of basil is the favored basil of many people for use in cooking and making pesto. One of Paula’s favorite varieties of sweet basil is Genovese.
Lemon Basil: Leaves of this basil impart a lemony flavor to dishes.
Thai Basil: Used in Asian dishes, this basil imparts a licorice/anise flavor to food and drinks.
Bell Pepper Basil: A “Paula find” at the Herb Festival at Round Top, TX, this basil grows as a shrub in Houston. Leaves of this variety can be substituted for bell pepper in salads. They can also be infused in vodka and, according to Paula, make a great Bloody Mary.
For basil growing tips and some great basil recipes, keep following Dallas Garden Buzz.