By Peggy Riccio, Guest Blogger and Member of The Herb Society of America
Say basil and people think of a plant with large, cupped green leaves and pesto. They probably envision sweet basil, the poster child for this plant. But, many different types exist. A member of the mint family, the basil genus Ocimum has more than 30 species. And, most of the basils we grow are some type of Ocimum basilicum; within this species, there are more than 40 cultivars. All have garden and home use.
Growers quickly learn that basil is an annual, herbaceous plant that prefers warmth, full sun, and well-drained soil. Realizing that basil is an annual plant that also flowers helps gardeners imagine how the different varieties of basil can be used. And, dividing them into five basic categories listed below enables gardeners to expand their concept of how basil can be used as a garden visual or kitchen staple.
- sweet green foliage (the green plant we always associate with pesto such as Genovese or Italian large leaf)
- small leaves and dwarf size (spicy globe basil, dwarf Greek basil, Minette, or Pluto)
- colored foliage (purple leaved Purple Ruffles or Dark Opal or light green/cream variegated Pesto Perpetuo)
- colorful flower heads (Thai Siam Queen has purple stems and fragrant purple flowers), African blue (many prominent purple flowers), or cardinal (purple stems, purple/red flower heads)
- fragrant leaves (holy, lemon, or lime).
Some basils overlap into more than one group; for example, cinnamon basil has fragrant leaves, purple stems and veins, and deep pink flowers so the plant provides scent/flavor as well as color.
Following are 15 ways one can use basil; species or cultivar depends on personal preference and availability.
- Container plant. All types of basil can be used as container plants either for green, variegated, or purple foliage, or colorful flower heads. Basil comes in different sizes from 8 inches to 4 feet so make sure the maximum height is in proportion to the container. Companion plants must also like well-drained soil and the container should have drainage holes. I had a few extra holy basil plants that I stuck in the same container as my bush beans and I have seen containers of basil and ornamental purple peppers.
- Annual in the garden. All types can be used as an annual in the garden bed, either for green, variegated, or purple foliage or for colorful flower heads or simply to fill in a gap. Think of basil as a flowering annual such as marigolds and plant them in the same type of location. My Thai, lemon, and lime basil have filled the gap left by my bleeding heart plant, which goes dormant in the beginning of the summer.
- Cut flowers in a vase. Basils that are grown for colorful flower heads or dark foliage are beautiful in flower arrangements. For example, Thai and African blue provide purple flowers and Purple Ruffles provide purple leaves.
- Potpourri or dried flower arrangements. Basil produces a tall, sturdy flower stalk that dries well and can be used in dried flower arrangements. The leaves or flowers can be used in potpourris, especially the more fragrant leaves such as cinnamon basil.
- Magnet for pollinators, beneficial insects, and birds. All basils, if left to flower, have small flowers that attract beneficial insects and bees. Birds, such as goldfinches, love the seed heads. I grow lemon basil in a container on the deck to attract the finches so I can see the birds up close through my kitchen window.
- Edging and/or border plants. In particular, the dwarf basils are best for creating a tight edging effect. They have small leaves, similar to boxwood, and are great for delineating a garden bed in the summer. Spicy globe basil can outline a garden bed and can be harvested at the same time.
- Cooking. Usually a sweet basil such as Genovese is used in pasta, eggs, pesto, soups, salad, and vegetables, but you can try any type of basil. I use lemon basil with fish filets and Thai basil with stir fried chicken and vegetables. Thai basil is often used in Asian cuisine because it keeps its flavor at high temperatures. Holy basil often is used in Indian cuisine and the sweet basil is often used in the Italian cuisine.
- Vinegars/oils/marinades. The purple basils work well in vinegar or oil for color and scented basils such as cinnamon can be used for flavor in either a vinegar, oil, or marinade.
- Honey, jellies, butters. Sweet basil is good for butter and the spicy types are good for honey and jellies.
- Beverages. Lemonade, cocktails, tea, and fruit juice pair well with basil. Try adding the spicy, cinnamon, lemon or lime flavored basils to these drinks for flavor or just make a cup of tea with basil leaves. I grow holy basil specifically for hot tea.
- Baking. Basil has been used to flavor cookies, pound cakes, and breads (rolls, muffins, flatbreads). I use the sweet basil for flatbreads and dinner rolls and the lemon, lime, or cinnamon for flavoring pound cakes. Basil flowers are edible and can be candied and used as decorations on desserts.
- Sugar syrups. Boiling one cup of water and one cup of sugar with one cup of scented basil leaves creates a sugar syrup that adds a sweet flavor to fruit salads, desserts, and drinks. Try cinnamon, lemon, or lime and keep a jar in the refrigerator so you always have it on hand to add to drinks, baking, and cooking.
- Fruit salads. Cut the leaves into ribbons and add fragrant strips of lemon, lime, or cinnamon to fruit salads or coat fruit salads with the sugar syrups made with the fragrant basils. Add purple flowers for decoration or line the bowl with sprigs of basil.
- Bath bags and soaps. Try cinnamon basil in the bath for an invigorating scent or combine basil with other herbs and spices. If you make your own soap, add the scented basils for fragrance or small basil flowers for decoration.
- Medicinal. Although basil has not been approved for medicinal use, basilicum has antimicrobial and antifungal properties. Several species have been used in traditional medicine. In other countries, basil has been used for kidney problems, gum ulcers, earache, arthritis, and skin conditions.
Peggy Riccio is member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America. She lives in Northern Virginia. Her website, pegplant.com, features local gardening news, resources, and plants for those who have started gardening or who have moved to the Virginia, Maryland, DC metro area.