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Suburban Gardener-Basil & The Backyard Herbalist



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Suburban Gardener—

Basil & The Backyard Herbalist

By Gerry McCabe

Ahhh, the scent of summer! Sweet basil leaves crumpled over freshly cut, juicy garden tomatoes topped with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar… Fresh basil pesto tossed with steaming linguini covered with sprinkling of fresh Parmesan… Tomato-basil sauce simmering on the stove mystically transforming the kitchen into a bistro in Venice… Fresh cut leaves tossed into salad or green beans…

Mouth watering yet? Need I go on? Or are you about to drop the newspaper and rush down to the grocery store and buy some fresh basil because you forgot to plant this resplendent herb this spring? Nary a person I know doesn’t have a plant of basil in their possession, whether in the garden or a window box. Even my father-in-law, whose garden is repeatedly devoured by Woodchuck Wally, was determined to keep his basil, so he planted it in pots and keeps it close to the kitchen window out of harm’s way.

Historically, basil was and still is a symbol of love in Italy. Many a suitor would visit his intended with a sprig of basil behind his ear to prove his love was true. Derived from the Latin word Basileus, or “royal,” the herb was treated with the greatest respect by the Egyptians, who mixed basil with Myrrh to embalm their dead in order to please their gods.

In India, the Hindus would plant pots of Ocimum basilicum sanctum or “Holy Basil,” in memory of a departed loved one, and in ancient Greece, having basil on the door meant a family in mourning. Medicinally, basil is known to be effective in relieving indigestion and nausea, and poultices of basil are used to clear acne in Eastern India.

In the 16th Century the English would make a snuff out of the herb to relieve headaches and colds, while the Greeks would simply rely on the clove-like aroma of basil to relax and therefore relieve what we know now as the “stress headache.”

Back then it was easy to choose basil to plant but today things just had to get more complicated. With successful scientific hybridizations of  “Sweet Basil” we now can choose between 150 cultivars and varieties of the popular herb. It frazzles me just thinking about it so let’s quickly discuss a few of the most favorite!

Ocimum basilicum cv. ‘Purpurascens,’ or Purple leafed Basil, was developed at our very own University of Connecticut in 1930. Although not as hardy as others, its color contrast in the garden makes the effort worthwhile. Purple Leafed is also splendid when placed in decanters of white wine vinegar.

Bush Basil, or O. b. var. minimum, is an adorable dwarf compact basil with tiny dark green leaves. Its mounding habit makes this variety an excellent choice for garden edging or window boxes.

O. b. citriodorum, or Lemon Basil, has much narrower leaves but the distinct lemon-basil aroma and taste can add delight to fish or tomato sauces. Pick a bouquet and add to it a sprig or two of  Cinnamon  Basil (O. b. cuv. ‘Spice’) with its bright green foliage and delicate pink flowers. Or try it in a marinade when grilling chicken. This basil has the honor of being aromatically linked with one of the most calming of spices known.

One of my favorites this year is ‘Green Ruffles.’ I have never seen such large, puckered, chartreuse, crisp leaves emitting such strong basil fragrance! To top that, it appears to be more prolific than its species “mother” Ocimum basilicum, or Sweet Basil.

Thai Basil  (O. b. ‘Siam Queen’) is also a must for the herb garden. Growing to 2 feet tall, this basil has purple stems with deep green foliage veined with purple. A delicate clove-basil taste is excellent with any dish calling for this herb. The list goes on....

Cultivation of basil is simple if you remember two things: Sun and warm temperatures. Basil will refuse to grow if the soil and air temperature is below 60 degrees. Soil should be moderately fertile with good drainage. Pinch back the flowers to encourage a continued foliar harvest. Basil can be dried or quick frozen on open cookie sheets and placed in freezer bags later.

Next winter while scanning seed catalogs, why not be daring and try a new variety of this marvelous herb. Or better yet, plan a “basil patch” and discover a whole new scope of gardening.

(When she isn’t tending to her garden at home, Gerry McCabe spends some of her time continuing her gardening education at Naugatuck Valley College in Waterbury. Gerry can be reached at TNGCATS@aol.com.)

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