Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a very popular herb used in Mediterranean cuisine. Although it originates in India and needs a subtropical or tropical climate to grow outdoors, it can, nevertheless, be grown in the UK in the summer and as a potted plant or under glass.
Basil is a very aromatic herb and is best used fresh but the leaves can also be dried for storage. It goes very well with tomato dishes of any type and is excellent as a herb used to add flavour to pizzas and the sauces for pasta. It is the main ingredient for Pesto sauce. This popular sauce used to be made with a pestle and mortar to grind up the ingredients but today a blender or food processor makes the job much easier.
Basil grows well enough in pots and window boxes and can be bought as small plants or started from seed. It will reach as much as 2 ft under ideal conditions but is usually a lot shorter. Basil is a half-hardy annual. It produces spikes of small white flowers that are carried in whirls. The leaves of basil are bright green and release their perfume if lightly brushed. There are plenty of great books available about growing herbs.
A culinary and medicinal herb
Basil is one of many culinary and medicinal herbs from the Sage and Mint family or Lamiaceae. Indeed, besides being a valuable herb for using in the kitchen it also has its uses in herbal medicine because it has antidepressant, antiseptic and soothing properties. The fresh leaves are said to be a remedy for insect bites and stings too. An infusion of the plant taken with honey is a treatment for colds. The essential oil of Basil is used in perfumery and in aromatherapy.
Vishnu and Lakshmi on Garuda
Coming from India, it is perhaps not surprising to find that Basil is regarded as sacred to Lord Vishnu in the Hindu religion. It is often planted in temple gardens and offered at holy shrines to the god. Basil is also used in funerals when a leaf is placed on the chest of a corpse after the head of the dead body has been washed in Basil water. In Asian countries it is often planted and scattered on graves.
There are many varieties of Basil, such as Dark Opal with purple leaves and cerise-pink flowers, and Purple Ruffles with purplish leaves with crinkly leaves. Bush Basil (O. b. Var minimum) is also known as Greek Basil. It is a short and bushy plant not growing higher than 12 inches in height but it has very aromatic foliage and tiny white flowers. These varieties hybridise readily if not kept apart.
Basil was first brought to Britain in the 16th century and it was used then as a strewing herb, due to its strong aromatic properties. Today Basil is one of the most commonly grown herbs and is very easy to grow from seed. It is a great choice for a kitchen herb garden. If you are thinking of growing your own herbs then Basil should definitely be on your list.
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