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The King of Culinary Herbs

(post, Nicole Willis)

Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), that king of the culinary herbs, has an unique scent and flavor that have made it a favorite in cuisines as diverse as Thai, Italian African and Indian. Over 60 species of this tender annual herb, a relative of mint, are cultivated world wide. Native to India and Africa, basil is a sun and heat lover, and unless you can supply both in constant measure, your basil will not thrive.

Basil can be started indoors in late April or early May, ready to be transplanted into the garden or containers as the weather gets consistently warm. It will germinate best in small pots or trays with some bottom heat. It can also be planted directly into the garden when the soil and air are both reliably warmed. Basil will go into shock in periods of cool weather if it is planted or set into the garden too soon.

Plant your basil in rich soil that has lots of organic material, and it will quickly grow vigorous and lush. Make sure it is in a sunny spot that is protected from cool winds. If the weather does cool off, protect your basil plants within a plastic tunnel. Fertilize weekly with a dilute solution of fish fertilizer to encourage foliage growth. Good drainage is essential, yet the roots need lots of moisture. If your basil plants dry out, the foliage growth will be stunted and flowers will start to form.

When your plants are 6 to 8 inches high, pinch out the tops, including the first set of leaves. This will make the plant bush out, and also give you your first tasty sample of basil to enjoy. Throughout the summer, pinch out the growing tips every ten days. This will not only encourage branching, but will stop the production of flowers. The small pointed leaves at each growth tip are an indication of flower buds forming, so make sure you remove them. Frequent harvesting will lengthen the life of your plants.

There are too many varieties of culinary basil to list all here, but these are some of the most commonly grown ones:

Cinnamon basil has purple stems and flowers make this a good plant to include in your flower garden as well as the herb garden. It has the taste and aroma of cinnamon.

Genovese basil is the best Italian pesto variety, with large oval leaves and a pronounced flavor. Add it fresh to salads too.

Lettuce leaf basil (Crispum) produces very large puckered green leaves that can be the size of hamburger buns! Use them in salads or as savory wraps. Purple ruffles basil has purple deeply ruffled leaves and a faint scent of cloves and is outstanding in salads, cooking or for making flavored vinegar. Opal purple basil is similar, with deep purple leaves that are flatter.

Siam queen is the authentic Thai basil, used in both Thai and Vietnamese cooking. It has dark green leaves on purple stalks and pink flowers.

Lemon basil produces aromatic lemon scented leaves that are both ornamental and good in cooking and for teas.

This year, try a few different types of basil in your garden. If space is limited, plant containers with basil for your patio or balcony. Any basil lover with just a small sunny space can easily grow a summer-long supply.

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