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A - Z of Herbs - Basil

Bush and Sweet Basil
Ocimum minimum and Ocimum basilicum
Medicinal, Culinary Herb

Basil is one of the most important culinary herbs. Sweet basil is a half-hardy annual that stands around 60 cm in height with a spread of upto 30cm. It has green leafy stems that vary in colour between light green and mid/dark green and thin, branching roots. The small tubular (two lipped) white flowers are 1/2 inch long and grow in clusters at the top of stems.

The leaves are between 5 and 7.5 centimetres in length and the variation in colour is determined by the soil fertility. The tiny seeds are dark brown. The leaves are used young in cookery and are used widely in cookery, particularly in the mediterranean style. Basil is to mediterranean cookery as Coriander is to Asian and far eastern cookery.

Bush basil is only about half the height of sweet basil and is often used by gardners for surrounding herb beds.


Basil is native to India, tropical Africa, Asia and the Pacific islands and is grown widely across many continents. In cooler climes it is best grown in pots.

Basil requires:

  • Shelter
  • Moist, well-drained fertile soil
  • pH of 6.
  • Sunlight
  • Regular watering
In the UK, during March, sow the seeds under glass in pots or boxes containing seed compost. Separate out the seedlings and plant out in late May or early June. Basil is very susceptible to cold and frost so ensure that the seed is propogated in warm sheltered conditions. Basil can also be sown outside in the warmer summer months (July and August in the UK). Basil can and often is grown in pots but remember that basil will not survive indoors.

Basil originated in India, where it was regarded as a sacred herb to the Hindu Gods, Krishna and Vishnu. Basil is usually grown in pots to be worshipped within the household.

The name comes from the Greek basileus meaning 'king', and denotes its connection to royalty where it was once commonly used in royal households.

Both forms of basil are used in medicine and cookery.

The essential oil is crystallized and referred to as basil camphor. This is used to inhale for clearing head and nasal passages. It also has:

  • Anti-bacterial qualities.
  • Ingredient of snuff, when dried and powdered.

In culinary terms basil is probably one the mostly widely used and loved herbs of all. In particular it is synonymous with tomatoes and is used to flavour anything from tomato juice to salds, omelettes and sauces.

When using basil remember to tear the leaves rather than cut or chop as this imparts more flavour and aroma.

Basil is used in both fresh and dried forms.

Links to Basil

A - Z Herbs & Spices

Recipe for Potatoes sauteed with garlic & basil

Sandro's musings on basil

If you really want to know some scientific and culinary facts about Basil, try these links:

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