Let’s take a moment to do some culinary math.
Q. Given the following equations, what is X?
X + Pine Nuts + Parmesan Cheese + Olive Oil + Garlic = Pesto
X + Mozzarella + Tomatoes + Olive Oil = Caprese Salads
X + Tomatoes + Mozzarella + Pizza = a Margherita
Also an important spice in Thai curry, basil is perhaps best known for its use in Italian cooking where it is often paired with tomatoes. It is this affiliation with tomatoes that cause me to associate basil with summer. I am perfectly content making an entire meal out of tomatoes and basil, either on their own in a salad or as bruschetta. There are many different types of basil including but not limited to lemon basil, holy basil (sacred in Hindu religions), globe basil, and the most common type, sweet or bush basil.
Basil is a member of the mint family and is thought to have originated in Asia or Africa. It had reached Europe by the mid 1500s and the United States by 1600. Throughout history both both medicinal and mystical qualities have been attributed to basil, with these often being dual in nature. In modern day, basil has been used to treat ailments ranging from acne to kidney problems. Some basil also has antifungal, antimicrobial, and antiviral properties though it may also contain cancer-causing compounds.* This is still an area of active research.
The variety of basil I have in my apartment is Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum), the most common variety of basil in the United States. I’m actually growing it from a cutting I took from a basil plant in the community garden (To see how I did it, visit this post).
Sweet Basil Information
Size: Sweet basil can range from 24 – 38 inches (61 – 97 cm) in height depending on conditions.
Water Requirements: A lot of water is required to grow basil. Soil should be kept damp, but not soaked.
Soil Requirements: The soil that sweet basil is planted in should be fertile and well drained. Basil prefers a soil that is very slightly acidic (pH 6.4) but can tolerate a wide pH range.
Light Requirements: Sweet basil likes to be grown in full sun (at least 4-6 hours of direct sun).
Temperature Requirements: Sweet basil does not tolerate cold temperatures well and should be kept above 40°F (4.4°C).
Nutrient Requirements: A fertilizer with equal amounts nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium with additional nitrogen supplementation later in the growing season is recommended for sweet basil.
Pruning: Many people who grow basil cut off flower buds, as they believe it causes leaves to become bitter. Nipping off the top set of leaves can encourage the basil plant to become bushier. Regular pruning is recommended.
Pests: Although sweet basil is relatively insect repellent, it can still be bothered by pests such as whiteflies, cutworms, and nematodes as well as fungal and bacterial diseases.
Companion Planting: Basil is often planted along side tomatoes.
Growing Indoors: Basil is well suited to growth in containers, both indoors and outdoors. Pots need to be at least 8 inches (20 cm). The best growing medium is a soilless mix and the light, water, and nutrient requirements are similar to those of an outdoor plant.
Harvesting and Use: Sweet basil is best used fresh although it can be frozen or dried.
For a much more detailed description of basil including history, preserving and storing, and recipes please check out the Herb Society of America’s Guide here.
*I am not a doctor nor do I advise using basil to treat any medical condition without discussing with your doctor first. I am simply stating what it has been used for.
Bonnie Plants – A good basic introduction to Sweet Basil. The plant I took the cuttings from was a Bonnie Sweet Basil plant.
National Gardening Association – Basil Plant care guide
Herb Society of America Guide – Basil In addition to basil, the Herb Society of America has good guides to many other herbs.