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Ocimum basilicum L. 1753
pronounced: OWE-kee-mum bass-ILL-ick-um
(Lamiaceae – the lavender family)
common name: Sweet Basil
Ocimum is the Latin version of the ancient Greek name for the basil plant, ωκιμον (okimon); basilicum is from the Greek βασιλικος (basilikos), royal, kingly, and our modern name from the plant comes from this adjective. The royal connotation probably comes from the belief that it grew above the spot where the Emperor (Saint) Constantine and his wife, St Helen, discovered the Holy Cross.
This culinary herb features prominently in Italian cuisine, and also in the south-east Asian cuisines of Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. There are many varieties of basil. The Italians typically use sweet basil, as opposed to the Thai basil, lemon basil and sacred basil, that are used in Asia. Basil was originally from Iran, India, and other tropical regions of Asia, having been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years.
Basil is commonly used fresh in cooked recipes. It is usually added at the last moment, as cooking quickly destroys the flavour. The fresh herb can be kept for a short time in plastic bags in the refrigerator, or for a longer period in the freezer, after being blanched quickly in boiling water. The dried herb also loses much of its flavour. Basil is one of the main ingredients in pesto – a green Italian oil-and-herb sauce.
The plant has leafy stems and thin, branching roots, and reaches a height of up to 60 cm at maturity. Sweet basil leaves are light green to dark green, depending on soil fertility, and are about 5 cm long. The tiny seeds are dark brown.
There are a number of cultivars of sweet basil, the most commonly used being ‘Genovese’, ‘Purple Ruffles’, ‘Mammoth’, ‘Cinnamon’, ‘Lemon’, ‘Globe’, and ‘African Blue’. The Chinese also use fresh or dried basil in soups and other foods. In Taiwan, people add fresh basil leaves to the traditional pinyin soup. They also eat fried chicken with deep-fried basil leaves. Basil is sometimes used with fresh fruit and in fruit jams and sauces. It is also sometimes steeped in cream or milk to create an interesting flavour in ice cream or chocolates. When soaked in water, the seeds of several basil varieties become gelatinous, and are used in Asian drinks and desserts.
Leaf cuttings of basil may be harvested from once to five times a season, depending on the length of the growing season. For small-scale production of fresh-market basil, the terminal whorls of leaves are cut from the stems. The basil should be refrigerated as soon as possible after cutting, preferably in the field. Harvesting of basil should occur in the morning, after the dew has left the plants, but before the heat of the day. If it is necessary to wash the basil after harvesting, a water temperature of 13ºC is preferable, and the material needs to be dried completely.
Essential oil and oleoresin are also extracted from the leaves and flowering tops by steam distillation, and used in place of the dried leaves for flavouring purposes. When used as a companion plant, basil is reported to increase the growth of peppers, and the growth and flavour of tomatoes. Traditionally, basil was used medicinally for digestive problems.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photograph taken at Picnic Bay 2010
Page last updated 30th January 2018