Summer of herbs: basil

basil leaved in the sun

Photo by J Triepke

Ah, there’s nothing quite like the smell of fresh basil. Cooks know it as a fantastic addition to salads, lovely ground up into pesto, or used as one of three ingredients in a pizza margherita. Herbalists, on the other hand, have a much more complex understanding of the plant.

Any plant this distinctive and pungent is bound to have acquired some meaning along the way, and basil is no exception. But what does it mean? It really depends on who you ask.

Hate plant

Ancient Greeks and Romans associated basil with hatred. In fact, the way to make it grow best was to swear loudly and rant and rave while you were planting it – something which no doubt made mothers tell their children to stay out of the fields while the basil was being planted!

Fifteen-hundred years later, it had acquired more of a mixed reputation. Herbalist Nicolas Culpeper wrote in the 1650s that authors “rail at one another like lawyers” in their disagreements about basil. Some said it was poisonous, he wrote, while “Pliny and the Arabian physicians defend it.”

Culpeper deemed that basil had its uses: if applied to a venomous bite it would draw the poison out, because like attracts like. But he also warned of a story he read (the 17th century equivalent of “a friend of a friend”) that someone once sniffed too much basil and had scorpions grow in his brain.

You could also supposedly grow scorpions or other venomous creatures by planting basil in horse dung. The link to scorpions may be explained by the story of the Basilisk, a giant serpent that could kill you by looking at you, and whose name derives from the name of the plant. Basil was also said to be a plant of Scorpio, and of Mars.

Love plant

Then again, others knew basil as a plant of love. In Voodoo tradition, it’s associated with the love goddess; in Moldova if a man accepts basil from a woman he will fall in love with her; in parts of Italy a pot of basil on a lady’s windowsill meant she was ready for her suitor to call.

In Sicily, it’s associated with both love and death; in Hinduism, holy basil is one of the holiest of plants, a threshold between heaven and earth and the incarnation of a goddess; in Victorian herbal lore, there was a distinction between common basil (which meant “hatred”) and sweet basil (which meant “best wishes”).

Growing basil

Culpeper may have got lots wrong about basil, but he knew how to grow it. “It must be sowed late, and flowers in the heart of summer, being a very tender plant,” he wrote. Seeds can be planted directly in the garden once all frost risk is past (around June 1 in Muskoka, just to be sure) or can be started indoors up to six weeks before that.

Within a month or so, plants will be large enough that you can start picking some leaves. And that’s the key to having lots of basil, is to keep picking. Pinch off the flower heads as they form and pinch the ends off the stems – this will encourage the plants to put out more leaves and become more full and bushy. Pinch the stems just above a leaf pair, for best results.

If you’d like to have basil indoors all winter, the same method applies. Just be sure to keep it in full sun – basil needs at least six to eight hours a day to do its best.

What to grow

There are dozens of varieties of basil, including all manner of combination-scented plants like chocolate basil, lemon basil, licorice basil and cinnamon basil. Holy basil and Thai basil have quite distinct flavours from Genovese basil.

The best bet with basil is to think about what kind of cooking you do most, and plant a basil that’s most appropriate to it. And then, experiment. Mint basil in a mojito? Pizza with Thai basil? Chicken curry sprinkled with shredded lemon basil leaves? Why not?

Just watch out for the scorpions in your brain, and you should be fine.

Posted in In the Garden.