Documents: Special Interest: Herbs:

Ten Neat Things About Basil
by Dorothy Dobbie
June 4, 2012

1. Herbal kings and noses.

The common name "basil" is from the Greek basilikon phuton meaning 'kingly herb'. Its botanical name, however, is literally Ocimum basilicum. Ocimum means 'to smell', so Ocimum basilicum means 'to smell kingly herb'. According to Culpeper, however, a French physician, Hilarius, said that it was "common knowledge" that sniffing too much basil would "breed scorpions in the brain". Basil was said to represent hatred in Greece, but it was also used in bouquets to announce love in certain other European countries.

2. Of kingly herbs and heaven.

Not only is basil thought to be the king of herbs, some varieties are positively heavenly, or at least are so named. Ocimum sanctum or holy basil is native to India where it is known as tulsi. This is a hairy plant with multiple branches and small, tender leaves. It has been traditionally used to treat asthma, arthritis and diabetes. A perennial variety called 'African Blue' is often used in Asian cooking.

3. Basil for safe passage.

A spring of basil was placed in the hands of the dead in Europe to ensure a safe journey to the other side. In India, it was placed in the mouth of the dying to ensure they would reach god.

4. Basil ice cream.

Milk steeped in basil has been used to make an interesting tasting ice cream. It is also sometimes used to flavour chocolate.

5. Yellow leaves.

Too much water or too much or too little fertilizer can result in yellow leaves at the bottom of your basil. The plant is also cold sensitive. Even a light frost will kill it. Basil likes bright sunlight and well drained soil.

6. Flowering signals an unhappy ending.

Unless you plan to use the seeds, don't let your basil plant flower. When a stem flowers, leaf production stops, oil production declines and the stem turns woody. Pinch back frequently to keep leaf production active.

7. Dried basil tastes like hay.

Drying basil is a bad idea because the aromatic oils are quickly lost. Instead, freeze fresh basil (many books recommend blanching but the leaves freeze well without this extra step). You can also chop the leaves and freeze them in ice cubes. Making a big batch of pesto and freezing that is another way of keeping their goodness well into winter. Layering the leaves in salt preserves their flavour, although it will give them a papery texture.

8. Basil baby-making.

You can propagate basil by taking cuttings, just as you would any houseplant. This will keep immature basil growing all winter, as long as you can provide enough light to keep it happy.

9. Messing with mosquitoes.

Extract of basil is toxic to mosquitoes and is used by some to repel the little bloodsuckers. One recipe: a handful of basil leaves and four ounces of hot water. Steep, drain and mix with some alcohol when the water turns green. Even if it doesn't work, you'll smell so good, no one will be able to resist you!

10. Basil around the world.

There are many, many varieties of basil. It can come as a small bush with small leaves, such as the large sweet-leafed basil we see in grocery stores. It can be purple-leafed, hairy-leafed, or silvery-leafed. It can have overtones of lemon, cinnamon, peppermint, cloves, licorice or anise. The sweet basils are generally used in Italian cuisine, the lemon basil in Thai cooking and the holy basil used in Asian foods. Its seeds can be soaked in water to produce the gelatinous product used in Asian drinks and desserts.

- Dorothy Dobbie Copyright© Pegasus Publications, Inc.

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