One of my favorite summer herbs — Ocimum basilicum, or basil — is one of the easiest to grow. Its history has inspired legend, symbolism, religious rituals and culinary delights. European, Asian, African, Caribbean, Mediterranean and South American cultures all have ancient stories and uses in medicine and the kitchen.
Probably originating in Asia and Africa, Ocimum basilicum is thought to have been brought to ancient Greece by Alexander the Great and to have made its way to England from India in the mid-1500s. It arrived in North America in the early 1600s.
Its growing requirements are simple: a warm, sunny spot, with nighttime temperatures above 60 degrees. And it likes rich soil and plenty of moisture. Basil can be sown in the garden once soil temperatures have warmed, or it can be started in pots and transplanted into the garden.
Harvest your basil when the leaves are young, but don’t fertilize, since doing so creates a bushier plant at the expense of flavor. After harvesting, the leaves can be frozen in polyethylene bags after being quickly blanched in boiling water.
If growing basil in containers, two or three plants can be grouped in a 12- or 14-inch pot. For the smaller varieties such as lemon, cinnamon or Thai basil, place four or five plants in one large pot.
For long-term storage, the Italian method works best. Pack dry basil leaves in layers in glass jars. Place a pinch of salt between the layers.
Basil begins flowering by midsummer, but to maintain the best flavor and most leaf production, the flowers should be pinched back to prevent seeds from forming. Start pruning basil when plants have produced six to eight leaf pairs. Cut it back to only eight inches above the ground to stimulate new leaf production.
The most popular basil is Genovese, the one grown for pesto. Other varieties include lettuce leaf, sweet and Italian large leaf. In her new book “The Drunken Botanist,” Amy Stewart includes wonderful recipes for fresh basil in cocktails.
The Gardens at Heather Farm will present a sale April 27 that features a variety of basils, along with zinnias and other summer annual flowers that help attract pollinators to the vegetables in your garden. Go to http://gardenshf.org for a listing of plants, including the basils.
— Patrice Hanlon