Basil - A Pure Indulgence
Kim Hurst, from The Cottage Herbery, with advice on a mouth-watering selection of Basils for you to grow at home. - 10 May 2020
Last year I had one of those renaissance moments with the genus Ocimum, commonly known as Basil. It happens here at the Cottage Herbery HQ every now and then, a renewed interest in a group of plants which is followed by the gathering, usually of seed, from multiple sources and the commandeering of valuable space in the ‘prop’ house. This is met by much muttering from the other member of the team here. However, I can’t be thwarted, the mission has to be accomplished. 2019 was to be the ‘Basil Year’!
All Basils are known to be tender perennials and so in our climate are usually treated as annuals. Choosing which species and varieties to grow needs consideration as time is limited on a small team nursery. Basil needs looking after; it has a certain sensitivity to fluctuating weather conditions, and our climate is notoriously unpredictable. It much prefers to grow in its countries of origin - India, the Middle East and South East Asia, which provide constant warmth and stable light levels. Having grown many types in the past the choice came down to the ease of growing, taste and seasonal longevity.
Basil is a much favoured herb and its popularity is well justified for its gloriously unique and pungent, spicy fragrance. What are those individual taste tones? Honey, anise and cloves have been suggested, but it changes when pulverised, say for pesto, adding more of an underlying tone of mint. Basils enhance a myriad of dishes in the cuisines of the world.
Growing all Basils from seed requires regular warmth, good light levels and no root disturbance when young. Sow seed indoors in late Spring into modules using a good quality seed compost, 3-4 seeds per module. Cover with perlite, label then sit in a tray of water to soak up the water from the bottom up, 20mins should suffice. If you can give them bottom heat of 18 to 22C perfect. Basil seed germinates within this range with good light levels you will see the seedlings emerging within 5-10 days. Once well rooted in their individual plugs, pot them up to grow on or plant out in rows in a polytunnel.
You can sow outdoors in early Summer in rich, well-drained soil and wish for a fairly dry season. We always grow our own Basils in pots and containers so we can move them to a sheltered spot when necessary, as it loathes heavy rain and a gusty wind. Some Basils are easy to damage which in turn causes health issues, and they can quickly expire.
Growing from cuttings is another option. Rob has perfected this with a few varieties, namely 'African Blue' & Greek Basil. Sweet Basil/Bush Basil will also root happily in water; after all they are from the Lamiaceae family-the Mints!
The Chosen ones ………….
Greek Ocimum basilicum var. minimum
A really good Pot Basil easy to grow. Grows perfectly spherical and looks like topiary balls atop their pot. It has tiny leaves which are strongly flavoured, so random picking doesn’t affect the overall look of the plant. It’s a sweeter tasting variety than Genovese. Often used for micro leaved salad. Height & Spread 10-30cm
Dark Opal Ocimum basilicum ‘Purpurescens’ ‘Dark Opal’
There are a number of dark purple leaved basils available now but this is still by far the best for growth and flavour.Developed in America in the 1950’s and grown for its richness of colour which intensifies with maturity, good leaf production, having recently had its own renaissance as a micro leaf super food. Height 50cm Spread 30cm
Thai ‘Siam Queen’ Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflorum
Also known as Oriental Basil, Asian Basil and Bai Horapa in Thailand. ‘Siam Queen’ is a cultivar of Thai Basil and is such a beauty! The tones of liquorice are strong which makes it ideal for Thai cuisine. A quick growing variety with distinctive deep burgundy flower heads and pale green/burgundy leaves. Height 24-30cm Spread 20-24cm
African Blue Ocimum basilicum var. purpurascens x kilimandscharicum
Such a handsome much sought-after Basil grown from cuttings each year. We cosset this, it’s kept warm with good light throughout the winter. Excellent pot plant. We let this Basil flower for a few weeks then cut it back. I dry the flowers on the stalks, strip when dry and store in air- tight jars so useful for lots of dishes. Bees adore it. Height up to 1 metre counting the flower spikes, Spread 40cm
Tree Basil Ocimum gratissimum
Also known as Clove Basil, East India and is a type of Holy Basil in Africa & India. A species Basil with a shrubby much branched habit from a woody base. The leaves are clove scented, lime green and textured growing up to 10 cm long. The flowers are also unique as they grow densely and are pale yellow. The other fact that we find interesting is if given the right conditions it can reach 2 m plus! We’ve got it to a metre before it expired. Grown as an annual here.
Actually the list goes on these are the others I succumbed to and grew.
'Lettuce Leaf' is a large leaf sweet Basil; 'Lemonette' small leaved lemon scented. Bush Basil a good all round sweet Basil. Cinnamon basil has an interesting cinnamon after taste, and is an attractive pot herb. 'Mrs Burns Lemon', from New Mexico, is very lemony. Holy Basil (Tulsi) has a beautiful clove scent. 'Puck' is a small bush sweet basil. 'Napoletano' is a sweet and mellow, large-leaved form, the one that pairs beautifully with San Marzano tomatoes. 'Fino Verde' is a good sweet Basil with close growing leaves, and is a compact form.
'Queen of Sheba' has very attractive purple flowers above bright green leaves, and is highly scented. Lime Basil is a citrusy medium-sized basil perfect for fruit salads. 'Mammoth' is the largest lettuce leaved form with crinkled leaves. 'Finissimo' is the smallest leaved there is and has a superb flavour. And finally British Basil - not a native, of course, but a sweet form, robust and selected for our colder conditions.
Hints and Tips
- Seed sowing – you could try ‘cursing’ as you sow your Basil seeds; it worked for the ancient Greek and Romans (or so they say)!
- If you’re a heavy user grow enough plants for your needs. It suffers or expires if over picked. Cooks and Chefs take note!
- Harden off your plants carefully as the shock can be too much and your plants will check for days after. Night temperatures need to be a constant 10C plus before you put your basil outside for the season.
- Don’t be too liberal with watering as basil much prefers to be on the dry-side. Water from the bottom - sit potted plants in a dish or tray to prevent disease.
- For better flavour and leaf production stop your plants from flowering - keep pinching out the buds. (except for 'African Blue'!)
- The last tip is to just enjoy.
Kim Hurst is the co-owner of The Cottage Herbery who lives with husband Rob and a Jack Russell called Ralf in a place that basil would prefer not to live, the border-shires.
More on Basil in Kim’s book ‘Hidden Histories Herbs’ published by Timber Press.