Originally published June 7, 2017
By Ciscoe Morris, former In the Garden writer
Editor’s Note: We’re revisiting some of our favorite stories from some of our favorite former magazine contributors. Check back each week for timeless classics focusing on food (by Nancy Leson, chef Greg Atkinson and chef Kathy Casey), gardening (by Valerie Easton and Ciscoe Morris, with this week’s retro-fresh tips on basil), former Fit for Life writer Nicole Tsong, wine guru Andy Perdue and more.
BASIL IS ASSOCIATED with great taste, romance and fine dining. It’s a key ingredient in Italian, Indian and Asian cuisine. And it’s one of the most popular herbs grown in Northwest gardens.
It hasn’t, however, always been held in such high esteem. Joseph de Tournefort, a 17th-century botanist, wrote the following about basil: “A gentleman of Siena was wont very frequently to dry the herb and snuff it up his nose, but he soon turn’d mad and died; and his head being opened by surgeons, there was found a nest of scorpions in his brain.” Just to be safe, maybe you shouldn’t “snuff” basil, but you can feel good about eating it. Basil is packed with disease-fighting antioxidants, is high in vitamins and is a good source of calcium.
Delicious as it is, basil is good for more than cooking. There are more than 60 varieties, and many have colorful leaves and interesting textures, making them great additions in container designs or mixed borders.
For a blast of dark purple, it’s hard to beat ‘Red Rubin’. This basil maintains its dark color all season and has intense, spicy flavor that adds zest to tomato sauce. Even darker in color are the wavy leaves of ‘Purple Ruffles’. They are stunningly beautiful in container and garden combinations, or as colorful additions to salads, adding a clove-licorice flavor.
One of the most attractive and hardiest varieties of basil is ‘African Blue’, which features lavender-streaked foliage and pink blossoms on long, purple stalks. This variety also is known for its somewhat-overpowering, love-it-or-hate-it flavor. You might not care to eat it, but you’ll definitely want to grow it as an ornamental. The storehouse of oils that make it so flavorful volatilizes on warm, sunny days, releasing such a wonderful basil aroma that your garden will smell like the public market in Genoa.
Finally, if you enjoy making pesto, it’s hard to beat the spicy aroma and sweet clove-like taste of sweet basil. Bright green, it looks great in a container design or a border.
The quickest way to murder basil is to plant it in the garden too early. Basil is a tender annual and quickly succumbs if night temperatures dip into the 40s. Fortunately, most local nurseries carry a great selection in pots ready to plant in June. As long as you provide it with a hot, sunny location, and plenty of water, basil is among the easiest of herbs to grow. Steady, slow growth is the key to great taste, so amend the soil with compost, and work only a quarter-cup of an organic vegetable fertilizer under each plant.
Basil contains the most oils when harvested before the flowers occur. The best way to delay flowering — as well as to encourage branching and new growth — is to harvest regularly by snipping off the ends of the branches. The best time to harvest is midmorning: right after the dew has dried, but before the afternoon sun bakes out the oils. At some point later in summer, flowering will begin in earnest. Then it’s time to harvest the entire crop, as flavor will go downhill soon.
The best way to preserve basil is by freezing the leaves. An easy way is to blanch the leaves in boiling water for two seconds, chop them and fill ice-cube trays with them. Then cover with water, and freeze. You also can layer the blanched leaves between sheets of wax paper before freezing.
If you prefer to make pesto right away, the sauce can be frozen in ice-cube trays. The frozen cubes can be stored in the freezer in plastic freezer bags for up to six months.