Of all the herbs that have a place in my garden, I think that basil is my favorite. I grow several varieties every year and no summer salad is complete without some. Also called the "King of Herbs", it is native to southern Asia and islands of the south Pacific. This tender annual is primarily grown for its aromatic leaves which are used fresh or dried to liven up numerous culinary dishes. Basil has medicinal, culinary, aromatic, ornamental, cosmetic, and companion planting uses. There are many varieties of basil that are cultivated use in cooking. They range in color from richly ruffled purple to pale mossy green. Each one has a distinctive taste: Lemon Basil, Cinnamon Basil, Persian Anise Basil. Basil is used to treat stomach cramps, flatulence, vomiting, fevers, colds, flu, headaches, whooping cough, and menstrual pains. It is also used to reduce stomach acid, making it a valuable part of any treatment for ulcers, and a valuable addition to any recipe using tomatoes for those with sensitive stomachs. Externally, it can be used for insect bites, to draw out the poisons. It has been used in other countries to eliminate worms from the intestines, and the oil from basil leaves is applied directly to the skin to treat acne. In ancient times, Basil was used as an antidote for poison. It is an herbal remedy for diseases related to the brain, heart, lungs, bladder, and kidneys. It is also mixed with borage to make a tea that is used to heighten vitality. Dried leaves are used in a snuff as a remedy for colds. An infusion of lemon-scented basil was used by the Hindus to ease the symptoms of diabetes. The leaves of the hairy basil have been used for their anti-asthmatic properties. To relieve sore gums, swish out the mouth often with a tea made from 8 basil leaves in a cup of boiling water. A basil leaf tucked into the mouth over an ulcer and kept there for as long as possible will ease the pain. Burn sprigs of basil on the barbecue to deter mosquitoes.

While the leaves have been widely used, it is not well known that the seeds have been used as both a laxative and for the treatment of diarrhea. Basil has also been used in cosmetics as a toning body rub when mixed with coarse sea salt and vegetable oil. When Basil is used in conjunction with wine, it can be used to close enlarged pores when applied directly to the skin. Dried basil is used for its fragrance in potpourris and sachets. It also is used in herbal bath mixtures and to add luster to the hair. Like most herbs, basil requires a sunny location that receives at least 6-8 hours of bright light per day and well-drained soil conditions with a pH range of 6.0-7.5. Propagation is easiest by sowing seeds directly into the ground where they are to be grown after danger of spring frosts. Sow evenly, covering with 1/4" of soil and keep moist and free of weeds. I have found watering with compost tea to be extremely beneficial to start germination. Germination should take place within 5-7 days. Once seedlings have developed 2-3 pairs of leaves, they should be thinned or transplanted to stand 6"-12" apart. Seeds can also be sown indoors 6-8 weeks before planting outside in order to get a head start on the growing season. This is especially beneficial for some of the slower germinating varieties such as 'Purple Ruffles.' A 2"-3" mulch consisting of grass clippings, straw or ground up leaves will be beneficial in retaining soil moisture and minimizing weeds around the plants during the growing season. Pinch the centers as the plants grow to ensure bushiness. Depending on the amount of regular rainfall, water deeply once every 7-10 days to insure the roots are receiving adequate moisture. Plants grown in containers will dry out faster than those in garden beds and therefore will have to be watered more frequently. Choose container with holes in the bottom for proper drainage.

Fertilize sparingly, fish emulsion at half strength applied every two weeks for container grown basil. If you are a northern gardener and basil has been difficult for you, try planting in containers that are placed up against a wall. Basil seems to like the additional heat that is reflected from the wall. Basil is extremely sensitive to frost. Basil attracts butterflies and insects to the garden. It stimulates the growth of companion plants, especially tomatoes and peppers. It is said to repel white flies. Basil and rue do not do well when grown near each other. Begin harvesting at any time by snipping the fresh young leaves as they are needed. Cut the long, leafy stalks for drying just before the plant comes into flower. To dry- cut long, leafy stalks and spread them out of direct sun on screens to encourage quick drying.

Do not hang them in bunches; the soft foliage will then dry too slowly and may spoil. Oven drying is not dependable, since the leaves, which bruise easily, are liable to scorch, but forced air driers with low temperatures will work. Once the basil is thoroughly dried, strip the leaves from the stems and store whole or ground in an airtight container away from heat sources and bright light. If stored properly, it should keep for about a year. If any sign of moisture occurs, empty the container and repeat the drying process.

Freezing is another method of preserving basil. Freeze in small quantities by storing in small plastic bags or chop up the leaves into small pieces and place in ice cube tray compartments topped off with a little water. When they are solidly frozen, remove and store in the freezer in a zip lock bag. This is a convenient way to add just the right amount of basil to sauces or soups. It is best to add the cubes, or any form of basil, at the end of the cooking process so their flavor does not fade. Properly frozen herbs should be used within a year.

The clove-like aroma and flavor is a wonderful seasoning in tomato dishes, soups, sauces, poultry, fish and herb butter. Sweet basil is the culinary classic. Italian, Lettuce Leaf and Opal are popular sweet basil varieties. Scented basils, such as Lemon, Licorice and Cinnamon basil, are used fresh or dried in potpourri, jellies, honeys, vinegars and baked goods. The best way to preserve the flavor (and scent) of basil is in vinegars. They are easy to make, and can be very pretty. Begin witha good quality vinegar, either cider or white. Bring the vinegar to boiling in an enamel or other non-reactive pan and pour over half a quart jar of loosely packed basil leaves of your choice. Fill the jar to an inch from the top, seal it, and allow it to steep in the sun about a week. Strain the vinegar through several layers of cheesecloth, discarding the stems, and funnel it into sterilized decorative bottles. Add a sprig or two of basil flowers before capping. Cinnamon basil produces a vivid pink in white vinegar, but you will also discover that each basil has its own character, and each makes a distinctive and delicious salad vinegar. All the vinegars are very attractive, and make great gifts if you are willing to part with them.  


"Garden: One of a vast number of free outdoor restaurants operated by charity-minded amateurs in an effort to provide healthful, balanced meals for insects,  birds and animals."



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