Herb Delight

Basil Season Begins

by Virginia Hayes

“The smell of basil is good for the heart — it taketh away sorrowfulness which cometh of melancholy and maketh a man merry and glad.” That’s according to the 17th century herbalist, John Gerard. Most of us would totally agree. And the season for basil is just getting going. From now until the end of summer, if you plan and plant successive crops, either from seed or young plants, you can have a continuous harvest of this fragrant herb for your kitchen. Basil is best consumed fresh, so growing your own will ensure that you always have some on hand for your culinary undertakings.

There are more than 150 different varieties of basil from several different species. Most are short-lived annuals (thus the need for repeat plantings), but at least one, holy basil (Ocimum sanctum), can persist in very warm spots from year to year. There are several different essential oils that give basil its characteristic taste. The amounts and proportions of these compounds vary, giving distinctive flavors to different varieties. There are basils with lemon overtones, some with anise or licorice flavors, quite spicy selections that are almost peppery and some with a hint of cinnamon. European cooks have traditionally used selections of Ocimum basilicum, while in Thailand and Indonesia two other species (O. canum and O. citriodorum) lend distinctive flavors to curries and other dishes. Local nurseries may have five or six different ones to choose from and specialty seed sources will have many more. By choosing several, you can replicate the authentic flavors of ethnic dishes from around the world.

Basil plants like even moisture and a sunny location. Keep them growing by harvesting often. Pinching out the growing tips will delay blooming, which is the beginning of the end for these plants. Even if you don’t have a large garden, basil will grow happily in a pot. In Rome, setting a pot of basil on the windowsill was supposedly a signal between lovers; a device that was corrupted in Spain to indicate a red light district. Luckily, no such stigma is attached to basil here.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to

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