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 Basil for Everything

 By Judi Singleton

I planted three kinds of basil today. I love basil it is one of those herbs that just is is truly indispensible in the kitchen. Ocimum basilicum, Sweet Basil, is the most common. Two or three plants will keep you in fresh Basil all summer, and give you plenty to dry for winter. The flavor is great, but deteriorates some after the plant flowers. Let a stalk or two go to seed for next years crop. Purple basils: have dark purple serrated leaves, pink flowering; good for cooking. 'Purple ruffles' is an example that is good for salad vinegars. East Indian: has a spicy clove-like aroma and flavor; good with tomatoes and curries.Thai basil: is anise flavored and used in Indian and Thai cooking. I also planted some seeds of a globe variety of basil Bush basils: are compact rounded plants, have tiny leaves, good flavor. Examples are 'spicy globe', 'bush' and 'tiny leaf purple'.

Try different kinds.
There are many different kinds of basil that are fun to grow. I like to look for the ones with tiny leaves, and the purple-leafed kind, and also spicy basil. Basil is a polymorph, meaning it occurs in many different forms, varieties and closely related species. The different types are easily hybridized, producing many different kinds of plants with different essential oil constituents and compositions. There are cinnamon, lemon, clove and licorice scented basils; purple and green, curly and lettuce leafed varieties. Dwarf bush types with tiny leaves are grown as ornamental plants.

Sweet Basil, Ocimum basilicum is an herbaceous member of the mint family. It is the basil most commonly grown. It is a delicate herb with a bold aroma and flavor, containing about 1% essential oil which has an intense, spicy-sweet, aroma and a slight anise-like undertone. Often associated with Italian cuisine, basil is native to the region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Popular as a seasoning and easy to grow, basil is cultivated and used throughout the world. Basil will flourish in your garden or in a pot on a sunny windowsill as long as it gets lots of warmth, water and sun.

Pinch the flowers
The minute you see flowers, get rid of them. The plant should keep flourishing with hearty leaves thereafter. Pinch your basil back to keep it small and tender even if you are not eating it as fast as it can grow. Last year mine was too top heavy for its root base and tended to fall over on anything unfortunate enough to be nearby. Snails and slugs absolutely love basil, and will devour young tender sprouting basil voraciously. I start my basil indoors so that it's not as much of a problem. I put it in pots outdoors but I surround the pots each night with pans of beer. It has been so wet here this Spring that I had about 40 slugs a night just around one basil plant.

Common basil pests are aphids, Japanese beetles and slugs. Knock off aphids with a spray of water, hand pick off Japanese beetles and drop into soapy water. For slugs, put out small containers of beer to attract them to their "fatal beer swim". Basils are also susceptible to fungal leaf spot (caused by poor drainage, high humidity), fusarium wilt, and cucumber mosaic virus (transmitted by aphids).

In the garden, basil is a fine ornamental and has a long history as a companion plant; it's supposed to improve the growth and flavor of tomatoes and help repel flying insects. Basil can be grown best in zones 4-10 and prefer warm soils and climate. Start seeds indoors six weeks before the last frost date in a moist medium at 80 degrees F. Or start seeds outdoors after soil is warm. Plant in well-drained soil with a little compost tilled in or add a small amount of balanced organic fertilizer. Optimum soil ph is 5.5 - 7.5. Space plants 12-18 inches apart. You can snip fresh basil leaves into a pasta dish or salad and have your aromatherapy and eat it too!

Basil Lore
Cultivated since antiquity, basil originated in India, where it was regarded as a sacred herb. The name comes from the Greek basileus meaning 'king.' In India, Hindus believed that if a leaf of basil was buried with them, it would get them into heaven. Basil was also sacred to the Gods Krishna, and Vishnu and is still found growing around temples. In Italy, basil was used as a signal for love; a pot of basil placed on the balcony meant that a woman was ready for her suitor to arrive.
In England, basil was used to ward off insects and evil spirits.  Basil is a part of religious traditions around the world, from Christianity to Hindu. Although there is no mention of basil in the Bible (21), the plant is said to have grown at the site of Christ's crucifixion (21, 24) and is associated with St. Basil, whose feast day is celebrated in Greece on January 1 by having basil blessed at church (21, 45).

Holy basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum, is particularly sacred in Hindu tradition. It is thought to be the manifestation of the goddess, Tulasi, and to have grown from her ashes. There are several versions of the legend, but according to a widely known one, Tulasi was tricked into betraying her husband when she was seduced by the god Vishnu in the guise of her husband. In her torment, Tulasi killed herself, and Vishnu declared that she would be "worshipped by women for her faithfulness" and would keep women from becoming widows (37). Thus, holy basil, which also goes by the common name tulsi, an obvious reference to the goddess, became a Hindu symbol of love, eternal life, purification and protection (21, 30, 37). In addition to basil's role in the death of Tulasi in the Hindu legend, basil has played a role in burial rituals and has been grown on graves in various countries.

Love and Courtship
Basil's love symbolism isn't limited to India. It has been considered an aphrodisiac by some, is associated with the pagan love goddess, Erzuli (20, 56 in 75), and is used in love spells (20). In Italy, where sweet basil is called "kiss me Nicholas," "bacia-nicola," it is thought to attract husbands to wives (21), and a pot of basil on a windowsill is meant to signal a lover (75). In Moldavian folklore, if a man accepts a sprig of basil from a woman, he will fall in love with her (21). As is typical for its folklore, while being linked to love and attraction, basil has also conversely been associated with chastity. In Sicilian folklore, basil is associated with both love and death when basil sprouts from the head of [L]isabetta of Messina's slain lover (21).

Protection and Luck
Basil is considered a good luck charm in some folklore. It is reportedly used in exorcisms, for protection and to attract wealth (20, 26, 75).

Language of Flowers
Basil's symbolism in the Victorian language of flowers also reflects its dual nature. It signifies both hatred (for common basil) and best wishes (for sweet basil) (34).

History & Folklore
Basil has a long and interesting history steeped in legend. Probably originating in Asia and Africa (73), it is thought to have been brought to ancient Greece by Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.), to have made its way to England from India in the mid 1500s and arrived in the U.S in the early 1600s (21). It was grown in medieval gardens (18, 40) and is mentioned in many classic herbals, including those of Culpeper, Gerard, Parkinson and Dioscorides (19, 33, 64).

Basil's folklore is as complex as its flavor and aromas. In terms of its legend and symbolism, basil has been both loved and feared. Its associations include such polar opposites as love and hate, danger and protection, and life and death.

The generic name, Ocimum, derives from the ancient Greek word, okimon, meaning smell (21, 24, 79), which suggests the impressive nature of basil's fragrance. The specific epithet, basilicum, is Latin for basilikon, which means kingly/royal in Greek (21, 24, 79). Henry Beston, in Herbs of the Earth, suggests that basil was so named for the regal "Tyrian" purple color [of its flowers] (11). According to Parkinson, basil's scent was "fit for a king's house" (35). Many authors suggest that basil's negative associations stem from the similarity of its Latin specific epithet, basilicum, to the name of the basilisk (or basilicus), the mythical serpent with the lethal gaze.

According to Helen Noyes Webster's 1936 Herbarist article, the first mention of basil was by Chrysippus (pre-206 B.C.E.): "Ocimum exists only to drive men insane" (78, 82). In his seventeenth-century herbal, Parkinson claimed basil could be used "to procure a cheereful and merry heart" (66). Gerard praised basil as a remedy for melancholy but also repeated Dioscorides' warning that too much basil "dulleth the sight…and is of a hard digestion" (33). Culpeper and Gerard claimed basil would cure scorpion and bee stings, and Gerard mentioned that basil could spontaneously generate worms if chewed and left in the sun (19, 33). Basil was also reputed to cause the spontaneous generation of scorpions and to cause scorpions to grow in the brain (19, 35). This connection with scorpions persists to this day in basil's association with the astrological sign, Scorpio (69). Culpeper sums up the disagreement among ancient writers by deeming basil "the Herb which all Authors are together by the Ears about, and rail at one another like Lawyers" (19).

Medically, basil has been used as a sedative, an expectorant, and a laxative but it is not used much in herbal preparations today. Still, adding basil leaves to food is an aid to digestion. The essential oil of basil is used to treat skin conditions such as acne.
basil has a long history as a medicinal herb. The Greek physician Dioscorides prescribed basil for headache. Pliny thought it was an aphrodisiac; his contemporaries fed it to horses during the breeding season. In modern aromatherapy, basil is used to cheer the heart and mind. The sweet, energizing aroma seems to help relieve sorrow and melancholy.

Growing Basil
Folklore holds that you have to curse the ground as you sow basil for it to grow well, but you can forego the cussing and still grow basil successfully. Its main requirements are sun and heat.

---History---The derivation of the name Basil is uncertain. Some authorities say it comes from the Greek basileus, a king, because, as Parkinson says, 'the smell thereof is so excellent that it is fit for a king's house,' or it may have been termed royal, because it was used in some regal unguent or medicine. One rather unlikely theory is that it is shortened from basilisk, a fabulous creature that could kill with a look. This theory may be based on a strange old superstition that connected the plant with scorpions. Parkinson tells us that 'being gently handled it gave a pleasant smell but being hardly wrung and bruised would breed scorpions. It is also observed that scorpions doe much rest and abide under these pots and vessells wherein Basil is planted.' It was generally believed that if a sprig of Basil were left under a pot it would in time turn to a scorpion. Superstition went so far as to affirm that even smelling the plant might bring a scorpion into the brain. Carry it in your pocket and it brings money to your business..Ahh, let's see..Plant basil on your property and it keeps goats away and keeps you from becoming inebriated...It was also thougt to be a soother of tempers...if that were true, parents of teenagers should probably have a lot of it around... and witches were suppose to drink 1/2 cup of basil juice before they took to the air. For anyone out there who is a witch, this is not to make fun of your belief...It is just some things I read and thought were kind of cute ( for lack of a better word.)

In Romania if a young lady offers a young man a sprig of basil, and he accepts, they are officially engaged.
In Haiti, basil is thought to belong to the goddess Erzulie the voodoo goddess of love. In Italy, basil is thought of as a sign of love. At one time young girls would place some on their windowsill to indicate they were looking for a suitor. In Tudor times, small pots of this were given by farmers' wives to visitors as parting gifts. It is also reputed that any man will fall in love with a woman from whom he accepts some basil from as a gift.

Culpepper says:
'Being applied to the place bitten by venomous beasts, or stung by a wasp or hornet, it speedily draws the poison to it. - Every like draws its like. Mizaldus affirms, that being laid to rot in horse-dung, it will breed venomous beasts. Hilarius, a French physician, affirms upon his own knowledge, that an acquaintance of his, by common smelling to it, had a scorpion breed in his brain.'

If you're looking for a lot of basil recipes, I recommend picking up "The Basil Book" by Marilyn Hampstead (ISBN 0-671-50685-4). Marilyn runs an annual basil festival at her herb farm. This is the largest collection of pesto recipes that I've seen.

HarperCollins Practical Gardener: Kitchen Garden : What to Grow and How to Grow It by Lucy Peel
The Medicinal Garden: How to Grow and Use Your Own Medicinal Herbs by Anne McIntyre
What Herb Is That?: How to Grow and Use the Culinary Herbs by John Hemphill, Rosemary Hemphill
Food Folklore : Tales and Truths About What We Eat (The Nutrition Now Series) by Roberta Larson Duyff (Paperback)
The Meaning of Herbs: Myth, Language & Lore by Gretchen Scoble, Ann Fiery
Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs (Llewellyn's Sourcebook Series) by Scott Cunningham (Paperback)
Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs by Claire Kowalchik (Editor), William H. Hylton (Editor) (Paperback)
The Green Pharmacy : The Ultimate Compendium Of Natural Remedies From The World's Foremost Authority On Healing Herbs (Green Pharmacy) by James A. Duke

About the Author
Judi Singleton publishes ten blogs a week if you like this article please go to  and read other articles by her.

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