Sweet basil evokes hot summer nights beneath a starry sky, great platters of salad Caprese and endless bowls of pesto-tossed linguine. But sweet basil (Ocimum basilcum)—and the accompanying Italian foodie dream—is only part of the story of the genus Ocimum.
Over the past decade, a large number of unusual basils—new varieties from commercial breeding programs and heirlooms that are now being exposed to a wider audience—have begun to appear in specialty nurseries and farmers’ markets. Transform the way you think about basil with a whole new palette of flavors and aromas. From the floral sweetness of ‘Blue Spice’ to the tang of ‘Siam Queen’ and the herbaceous sharpness of ‘Pesto Perpetuo’, these varieties will surprise your nose and tongue.
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Basil in the Garden
One of the best things about these unusual basils is their outstanding garden presence. While sweet basil is an attractive plant, few of us would plant it for its looks alone. But with some of these newer varieties, planting for ornament is a definite possibility. Take ‘African Blue’, for example. With its
abundant spikes of lavender-blue flowers and purple-stained leaves, it could easily be mistaken for a plectranthus or a salvia. Add a strong perfume, and you have a plant well worth including in any ornamental planting.
When I visited Powell Gardens (near Kansas City, Missouri) last summer, I was impressed by an attractive mixed planting composed solely of basils. The bed was fronted by a dwarf bush variety, giving a tidy green edge. Behind were pillows of larger bush varieties studded with white flowers. Blending into these were patches of gauzy lavender-flowering Thai varieties. Several large columnar basils added solid blobs of green to anchor the hazy drifts of purple. Shadows were provided by purple-leaved basils, while ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ added a lighter color note. This bed of basils would be worthy of a place in anyone’s front garden.
Basils also grow well in pots. At Sugar Creek Gardens in Kirkwood, Missouri, where I work, we use basils in many of our edible planters because they’re both useful and attractive. Growing basil in planters also makes it more accessible. Keep a planter of basil outside your kitchen door and you’ll have it ready for plucking at any moment, like those soggy days when you’re making a minestra and need basil to finish it off, but don’t want to pull on your waders to tromp out to the kitchen garden.
Basils are good mixers, as their cultivation requirements are similar to those of many warm-season annuals. The flowering varieties—‘African Blue’, ‘Blue Spice’, ‘Cinnamon’—will mix well with brightly colored tropicals. Try ‘Cinnamon’ basil with Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus). The basil’s dark stems and pale purple flowers will stand out prominently against the shimmering green-and-purple mass of the Persian shield. Basil varieties with colored foliage make great foils for flowers. A classic herb garden combination well worth repeating is to pair an orange marigold (Tagetes patula) with one of the purple-leaved basils (try ‘Rubin’ or ‘Purple Delight’).
It’s usually impossible to go wrong with basils in the garden. Use them to fill gaps, to bring beauty to dull areas, and—most importantly—for the sheer pleasure of absentmindedly brushing against them, then being overwhelmed with joy as their fragrance billows up on the hot summer air.
Basil in the Kitchen
No matter how much one may enthuse over basils’ contributions to the garden, the kitchen is undeniably their primary purpose. But, while regular sweet basil pairs well with almost any summer ingredient, the exotically scented varieties take a little more thought. As usual, your nose will be your best guide to successful combinations.
A cursory sniff will show that most varieties fall into one of several flavor categories. Varieties with a sweet basil scent and flavor—such as ‘Cardinal’ and the purple-leaved types—can be used just as you’d use sweet basil. The small-leaved varieties tend to have a sharp, peppery flavor that helps them stand up to coarser companions (raw onion, olives, russet potatoes). Basils from the Thai group—such as ‘Siam Queen’ and ‘Cinnamon’—have fruitier aromas that complement sweets and Asian-oriented dishes. Varieties in the African group (like ‘African Blue’ and ‘Blue Spice’) have highly individual scents and require extreme discretion in their use.
Basils are highly heat-sensitive and their scents dissipate quickly, so chop and add them at the very last minute for best flavor. Their color also suffers from heat—the greens go muddy and the purples go black. Add basil after cooking if you want to retain its color.
Although these unusual basils are rarer than sweet basil, they are not necessarily more trouble. In fact, exotic basil varieties have the same cultivation requirements as sweet basil: full sun, warm temperatures, adequate water and fertile soil. At least six hours of full sunlight per day are essential for best growth. The greatest cause of disappointment with basils occurs when gardeners are in such a hurry to get their basil growing that they plant it out before the soil is warm enough. A cool night or two comes along, and the basils are stunted. The transplants may just sit in the ground and rot. To avoid this, wait until nighttime temperatures are reliably 50 degrees and above— about two weeks after your average last spring frost date is a good time. Basils like a lusher life than many herbs. Keep them moist but not wet. Fertile soil is also essential.
You’ll have to hunt around your local nurseries to find some of the rarer basils. Herb society sales are an excellent source of rare varieties—they also give you the chance to talk with people who have already grown them.
If you have difficulty finding starts of the unusual basils to plant, you can grow most basils from seed. While it is possible to direct-sow them in the open ground once the soil has warmed to 50 degrees, this will give the plants a very late start. Basil seeds are small and the seedlings are fragile, so it’s probably better to start them indoors, especially if you only have a few seeds. This way, you can start a few weeks before it’s warm enough to plant basil outside, then plant the starts outside once the weather is cooperative. It’s especially fun to watch your special basils sprout and begin to grow during the last dreary bit of weather.
Caleb Melchior studies landscape architecture. When not working in the studio, he writes about food and gardens.