If there is one herb that every Michigan gardener should grow it is basil. Not only is basil an important flavoring for many popular dishes, it’s also beautiful enough to fit in any ornamental garden. It’s used in the cuisine of many nations, as a part of sacred rituals, and as a medicinal herb. Basil is easy to grow and can even be grown on a window sill.
Basil is one of the oldest cultivated herbs. It is said that basil symbolizes “love washed with tears” and it was often used in burial rituals. Basil is a sacred herb in the Hindu and Greek Orthodox religions. In Greek, basil means “king” and this plant is indeed a king in the garden.
There are over 50 species of basil and many more varieties and hybrids of species. Each species has its own chemical components that give it a unique smell and taste. Most are edible, but some fit different types of cooking better than others. Basil has many culinary uses from flavoring turtle soup to pesto. Basil usually pairs well with tomato dishes and the leaves are a spicy addition to salads. In Indiaa milkshake is made from basil seeds.
Basil plants are also quite ornamental and plant breeders are working to produce even nicer selections for the flower garden. The ornamental basils are attractive in mixed borders and in container plantings. The compact basils make a nice border for vegetable or flower beds.
Basil tea is said to help with stomach cramps and gas. In sensory gardens, where scent and taste are featured, basils are perfect choices. Dwarf basils make excellent edible houseplants.
In Michigan it is best to start the seeds inside 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost. The soil temperature for germinating seeds should be 70 degrees. Basil doesn’t always come true from seed, with wide variation in the way it looks and smells. You may want to purchase plants so you can see and smell the basil before you put it in the garden. Basil also starts easily from cuttings. Almost all basils are annuals and need to be replanted each year.
Basil is extremely vulnerable to damage from cold, so wait until a week or so after the last frost before planting basil outside. Day temperatures should be above 70 and nights above 50 degrees for best results. Basil should be planted in full sun. Basil will grow in a wide variety of soils but it must be a well drained site. You can mix a slow release garden fertilizer in the soil when you are planting, but basil will grow well in most areas without fertilization. The plants like to dry out between watering but should not be allowed to wilt.
If you are growing basil for its ornamental appeal you can allow it to flower freely. If you are growing basil only for cooking, keep the flowers pinched off. Just pinch or snip off basil leaves to use fresh. Basil loses much of its taste when dried. You can freeze sprigs of basil in cubes of ice, which taste almost the same as fresh in cooking. Basil leaves can be put in olive oil or vinegar and after several weeks will lend their distinctive taste to the product.
Small varieties of basil will grow very well in a sunny, warm window sill. Make sure the container has good drainage. If you are not using enough of the plant in cooking to keep it compact, pinch off the tips of stems to keep it from growing lanky.
Sweet basil is the kind most people use for pesto and Italian cooking, These green, large leaved varieties are often listed as Italian or Genovese basil. ‘Purple Ruffles’, [purple frilly leaves, pink flowers], is also a sweet basil as is ‘Rubin’,[ bronze-red leaves, purple flowers], but they are both very ornamental. ‘Pistou’ is an excellent basil for pots, it is a dwarf plant with small leaves. Lemon basil ‘Sweet Dani’ has large green leaves, white flowers, and a strong lemon flavor. ‘Thai Magic’ has shining dark green leaves and large magenta flowers. It has a spicy anise-clove flavor and is used in Thai and Vietnamese cooking.
Cinnamon basil has pretty violet colored leaf stems, touches of purple in the leaves, and lovely pink flowers. ‘Blue Spice’ basil has a slight vanilla undertone to the typical spicy basil flavor, and is very pretty with purple tinged leaves and lavender flowers. Holy basil ‘Red and Green’ has purple-red and green leaves on the same plant, purple flowers, and smells like a mixture of mint and cloves. ‘Oriental Breeze’ basil is an ornamental with large, showy purple flowers. There are many other varieties of basil on the market, you may have to buy from a catalog to get the more unusual types.