Basil is an annual with broad, medium green or purple leaves. The plants reach a height of 12" — 24" and produce small white flowers on spikes in midsummer. There are several varieties of basil that can be successfully grown.
Sweet Basil comes in a variety of types and is the standard basil commonly sold.
Lettuce-leaf Basil has large, savoyed leaves which look like curly lettuce. These are attractive where the fresh leaves remain to be seen in a finished dish. These can be used like other basil's, as a base for salads or as a garnish.
‘Dark Opal,’ ‘Red Rubin’ and ‘Osmin’ Basil are a beautiful, rich, wine-red color. They have a bold, heavy taste so need to be used differently than sweet basil's. Good addition to butters and cream sauces.
Cinnamon Basil is popular in some Oriental cuisines. It has a somewhat cinnamon-like flavor, but it is not too distinct. The plant is beautiful with purple stems and glossy green leaves. If left to flower, it has lovely light purple flowers in terminal clusters.
Anise Basil looks like cinnamon basil but has an anise or licorice-like flavor.
Lemon Basil has a very lemony flavor and aroma. It can be used in cooking where a lemon flavor is desired. This plant loves to flower and go to seed, so repeated pinching is essential. ‘Mrs. Burns’ and ‘Sweet Dani’ are improved cultivars with higher lemon flavor.
‘Spicy Globe,’‘Green Bouquet’ and ‘Greek’ Mini Basil's are three similar small, compact, bushy types. They double as attractive edging and culinary plants.
‘Green Ruffles’ Basil has an intensely ruffled surface that is very ornamental. ‘Purple Ruffles’ is a dark opal version with a similar leaf type. Both of these are less valued as culinary herbs and are better used as a garnish.
Sow the seed in spring as soon as the ground can be worked, or start with transplants from a garden center and set them out after all danger of frost is past. Space plants 8 to 12" apart. For fresh use, harvest the leaves 6 weeks after planting or as the leaves mature. To keep a steady supply of new leaves, pinch off the flower spikes just after they form. The leaves dry well, either by hang drying or in the microwave. They will shrink in volume and become brittle but still retain their flavor.
The crushed leaves of basil have a sweet, anise-like flavor and aroma. They are used to perk up any vegetable, poultry, or meat dish. Basil is also often used in tomato and egg dishes, stews, soups, and salads. It is a principal ingredient of pesto, a green sauce that is added to soups, vegetables, and fish, and to pasta in Mediterranean cooking.
The early Romans made it a symbol of love and fertility. Through the centuries, it became a custom of young Italian suitors to wear a sprig of Basil as a sign of their marital intentions. In India, Hindus believed that if a leaf of Basil were buried with them, it would serve as their passport to heaven. Source: McCormick