Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
By Barbara Porsche, Master Gardener
By now most of us are dreaming about our upcoming garden or maybe have even started some plants for it and are looking forward to some juicy red tomatoes to savor. And a natural with the tomatoes is Basil. You will want to grow some Basil to use with those delicious juicy red tomatoes.
Basil has been cultivated in Europe for 2000 years and there are at least 200 different varieties. It has been thought to be poisonous, good for the heart and used for bites of venomous beasts. Early Greek and Roman physicians believed the only way to grow a good crop of Basil was to scatter the seeds while cursing and stomping feet. Fortunately for us in west Texas, Basil thrives in warm climates and is easy to start from seed. But the neighbors are deprived of the side show.
The most popular Basil to grow is sweet basil because of its flavor, aroma and nice big leaves which can be used in salads or other dishes. Nothing is better than a “stacked” salad. Stack a nice thick slice of juicy red tomato, a slice of fresh mozzarella, and fresh basil leaves. Then repeat. Drizzle a little good olive oil over it, some freshly ground black pepper and dive in.
One of my favorite varieties to grow is African Blue Basil. This is a sterile hybrid basil, so you don’t need to be continually clipping off the blossoms. In warmer areas like Houston, it can be a perennial. And the beautiful amethyst-colored blossoms are magnets for butterflies and especially bees. I do anything to help the bees! It is a little difficult to find in the trade, so if you do see some, grab it and give me a call immediately. The “valentino” or lettuce leaf basil is exceptional because of its huge ruffly leaves. There is a “thai” basil that has a distinct flavor for thai or oriental dishes.
As for the sweet basil, they need to be pinched back or pruned to continue growing for the season and that doesn’t mean just pinching off the blossom ends. Once they are reach 6-8 inches tall, pinch the central stem back by half and about ¼ inch above the leaf axils. This will force the plants to branch and grow more leaves. As the plants keep sending out new branching stems, continue to pinch them back in the same manner. Of course, all that you “pinch back” can be used for some delicious dish at that time.
Use the beautiful basil leaves to make pesto to eat immediately and freeze some for use during the winter. It freezes well and in mid-winter a nice pasta dish with fresh (even though frozen) pesto will seem like summer again.
One of my resources says that “basil” is pronounced to rhyme with “dazzle”. But no matter how you pronounce it, you will certainly enjoy growing and using it. It isn’t too soon to start thinking about getting some when you see it. But don’t get too eager because it will not tolerate cool weather.
If you have questions, call the AgriLife office in Odessa at 498-4071 or in Midland at 686-4700.
Additional information, and our blog for access to past articles, is available at westtexasgardening.org. Click on “Resources”.
Mature Basil in bloom