Basil is a popular herb and a staple in the summer kitchen. The name Basil is derived from the Greek "basilikos", which means "herb worthy of a king", and it was also supposed to be an antidote to the basilisk's venom. It was brought to Western Europe in the 16th Century by the merchants of spices and is frequently associated with Italian cooking such as pizzas, salads, sauces and pesto.
History and medicinal uses of Basil
Basil is a herb with a rich history with records of it being found in ancient Egyptian tombs, where it was thought to be used for embalming and preserving, as well as being referenced throughout the traditional medicinal system of ancient India; Ayurveda.
Basil’s medicinal properties in the UK have been dated back to the Elizabethan times where it was used as a remedy to soothe headaches, particularly those caused by stress. Even just the smell of fresh Basil leaves is a stimulant for the appetite which makes it a good herb for convalescents. It is also a beneficial antioxidant, known to aid digestion and act as an antiseptic.
Basil as a culinary herb
It is a member of the Lamiaceae family and can be found growing all around the world. There are many forms of Basil, they can range in colour and taste from Ocimum basilicum var. purpurascens with its dark purple leaves and pink flowers to Ocimum africanum (syn. Ocimum x citriodorum) with bright yellow leaves and a distinct lemon scent.
Widely used in kitchens across the world, it is an important herb in the culinary scene. Whilst it might be most recognised in the west for its use in Italian dishes there are varieties that come from Mexico (Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinammon’), Indonesia (Ocimum africanum) and the native basil from the Indian subcontinent (Ocimum tenuiflorum) which all bring their own unique flavours. With so many to choose from it’s well worth exploring all that Basil has to offer.
You can see Jekka’s Basil Collection here.
Jekka’s Top 5 Basils
These are the favourites on the herb farm right now and the ones that can be found on our looking good herb list:
- Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinammon’, Cinammon Basil – great for stir fry dishes. With olive, green-brown leaves that have a very spicy flavour.
- Ocimum basilicum ‘Horapha nanum’, Thai Basil – used as a vegetable in curries and spicy dishes. Olive, purplish leaves with distinct red stems. Aniseed in scent and flavour.
- Ocimum basilicum ‘Mrs Burns Lemon’, Mrs Burns Basil – good with chicken, fish, rice and pasta and for dressings and sauces. Green oval leaves with an intense lemon scented flavour.
- Ocimum basilicum var. purpurascens ‘Red Rubin’, Red Rubin Basil – great in tomato based dishes, with a warm very spicy flavour.
- Ocimum basilicum ‘Greek’, Greek Basil - the perfect combination with fresh tomatoes. Small, green, oval pointed leaves.
Basils are available and you can organise a collection from our herb farm in South Gloucestershire or at one of our Open Days or Herb Experiences (see our events calendar). Please see our 'Looking Good Herb List' for availability and use our webform or email your list directly to us (firstname.lastname@example.org). We no longer offer a mail order service for our plants.
How do you grow Basil?
In most cases Basils are annuals, which means they can be grown from seed each year and will die back at the end of the growing season. They are best grown in containers where you can provide them with protection from inclement weather if needed, and are great companion plants for tomatoes. Start sowing seeds under protection from early spring into early summer and can be transplanted once the risk of frost has passed. They want lots of sunshine but will need some shelter from the midday sun to prevent scorching. Basil is one of the herbs that is happy to be grown indoors and is a good deterrent for house flies.
Jekka’s top tip is to always water in the morning as they hate going to bed wet (soggy bottom) and this will minimise ’damping off’ if the temperature drops at night.
Regularly pinch out the growing tips of branches to keep your Basil plant productive and remove any flowers that start to develop. The flowers are edible, adding a decorative touch to salads and giving an intense flavour.
For advice on growing and maintaining herbs, check out Jekka's How to Grow Herbs videos and ‘Jekka’s Seasonal Tips’ blog series, which includes what to do in your herb garden in early spring, late spring, summer and autumn & winter.
Tips on harvesting and storing Basil
Begin harvesting from late spring; pick the top young leaves to promote more growth and harvest in the morning when leaves are at their juiciest. Fresh Basil is best used straight away, but to preserve this herb infuse in oil or vinegar or make into sauces and butters, see our Basil pesto recipe below. When cooking with Basil, the flavour can be compromised if cooked for too long, so add towards the end of cooking when the warmth will release the flavour and aroma.
Basil is an essential ingredient in pesto, and once made is great to have in the fridge to add to sauces and pasta dishes.
- 1 tablespoon pine nuts
- 4 tablespoons fresh chopped basil leaves
- 2 cloves garlic
- 75g of parmesan cheese
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- Blend the pine nuts, basil, parmesan and chopped garlic until smooth.
- Slowly add the oil and continue to blend into a thick paste.
- Add salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste.
Store in a covered container to preserve or freeze in ice cube trays to use at a later date. You can also make it vegan by substituting the parmesan cheese with 1 tablespoon of nutritional yeast.