Basil is an ‘essential’ herb for any Mississippi summer garden

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 17, 2004

Basil is one of the most widely grown and most popular of all herbs. Known as an essential kitchen herb, basil has a distinct flavor and high essential oil content. The ornamental value combined with the aromatic presence in the garden make basil an annual staple in many southern summer gardens.

As with most herbal plants, folklore and legend is involved in the history of basil. Today, many gardeners plant basil as a companion plant to tomatoes with the belief that basil repels harmful insects and adds a richer flavor to the tomatoes. Basil is said to repel insects in general, making it a great choice for the patio or courtyard.

Native of India, Pakistan and Africa, many different species of basil exist. In India, holy basil and sweet basil are known as sacred herbs to the goddess Lakshmi, wife of Vishnu, the god who preserves life. Basil is also valuable in the practice of herbal medicine in India where it is said to relieve fever, asthma, stress, canker sores and other ailments. Temples, courtyards and homes of India are traditionally surrounded by beds of basil.

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Margaret Grieve wrote in her 1931 edition of A Modern Herbal that ‘An infusion of the green herb in boiling water is good for all obstructions of the internal organs, arrests vomiting and allays nausea’.

Dried leaves of basil, used like snuff, have been reported to cure some types of headaches. Presently, basil is being evaluated in scientific studies to determine its medicinal values in the treatment of high blood pressure and other medical problems.

Many species and varieties of basil are presently in cultivation. Sweet basil is the most common and is a classic Italian herb. Most of us associate sweet basil with tomato sauce, pesto, and salad dressing.

Distinct regions of Europe are famous for their own basil varieties. Genoa, Italy is the most famous pesto region in Italy and boasts of wonderful ‘Genovese’ basil. Naples is home to the ‘Napoletano’ cultivar, another flavor sweet basil.

‘Aussie Sweetie’ is my favorite cultivated variety of sweet basil and as the name suggests, originated in Australia. Unlike most basil, ‘Aussie Sweetie’ rarely flowers making it low maintenance in regard to flower removal to encourage the leafy foliage.

This columnar selection grows to 3-4 feet in a season and must be vegetatively propagated to save plants for the following season since seed is rarely if ever produced. The flavor and aroma is excellent, making this a fabulous lower maintenance basil to grow.

Lemon basil, cinnamon basil and anise basil are some of the other flavors to include in the summer garden. The purple foliage of ‘Purple Ruffles’ is highly attractive. The leaves add a warm reddish-purple color to herbal vinegars, oils and jellies.

Basil is an easy to grow annual herb. Sow seed as the soil warms in the next few weeks or set out transplants. Plant in an area with full sun and well drained soil. Frequent harvest will keep the plants from flowering and setting seed, making an abundance of aromatic foliage available into fall.

Attractive in containers, in a traditional herb garden or in mixed borders, basil is a rewarding plant to grow. Basil also has the ability to withstand our torrid summer heat, making it a real winner in the Miss-Lou.

Traci Maier

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