‘Sweet Dani’ lemon basil, growing vigorously in the test fields at Purdue University’s O’Neall Vegetable Research Farm
Photograph by Mario Morales
‘Sweet Dani’, a vigorous, large-leaved green basil with a strong, fresh lemon scent, is an All-America Selection for 1998. The new basil, a hybrid showing characteristics of Ocimum basilicum and O. americanum, owes its intense lemon flavor to a high concentration of citral, up to 65 percent, in the essential oil.
Susan Belsinger, whom I worked with on Basil: An Herb Lover’s Guide, describes the aroma of ‘Sweet Dani’ as very sweet and lemony with a hint of perfume followed by a touch of mint and spice. When she tasted a leaf, she discovered a resinous, oily lemon flavor, easily the strongest lemon taste we’ve come across among basils.
The new introduction from Pan-American Seeds is the work of James E. Simon, a research professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and his colleague in the horticulture department, Mario Morales. ‘Sweet Dani’ grew out of a bigger project Simon was working on during the late 1980s on basils’ essential oils. He became interested in breeding basils for their ornamental value. “It was a bootleg project that I thought would anchor us in reality,” Simon said. ‘Sweet Dani’ became a six-year research project on its own.
Simon’s idea was to put together a diverse group of basils, let them cross-pollinate, and see what happened. He and his staff rounded up eighty different basils—deep purple basils from Iran, treelike green camphor basils from Africa, handsome cinnamon basils with glossy green leaves and dark purple flower spikes, and many others—and grew them together on a plot at Purdue’s O’Neall Vegetable Research Farm. At the end of the season, they gathered seed from the plants and mixed them together in a paper bag.
The following year, they sowed the seeds, and soon the experimental field was full of strange and beautiful basils. The wide sweep of color, form, and bloom in the field suggested basils’ uncommon diversity. Simon prowled the field, checking the form and aroma of every plant, and selected a handful as worthy of further study. One of these was a tall plant with a lemon aroma that later became ‘Sweet Dani’. Other basils from this breeding program are likely to appear in the marketplace in coming years.
The chosen plants were dug up, brought into a greenhouse, and separated to discourage further cross-pollination. Seed was collected from each plant, and the long process of reselection and stabilization of each plant’s characteristics began. Building up a plentiful supply of reliable seed took many plant generations, and it was several years before ‘Sweet Dani’ was ready for commercial release.
Delaware State University botanist Arthur O. Tucker identified the probable parents of the hybrid, and Simon named his plant to honor his daughter, Daniella, now seventeen, who sniffed her first basil at the age of four.
‘Sweet Dani’ is as easy to grow as other basils, either from seed or plants, both of which are readily available in garden centers or by mail order. Start seeds indoors a few weeks before the frost-free date. Keep the seedlings in a warm place and give them plenty of light. Harden them off gradually and wait to transplant them outside until nighttime temperatures are reliably above 55°F.
This is a fast-growing basil. My seeds germinated in three days, and seedlings reached transplant size in my greenhouse within twelve days and were ready for the garden within fourteen days after that. A month after being planted outside, plants were 27 inches tall and 15 inches wide and starting to produce small white flowers on 5- to 8-inch spikes. The mature green leaves are egg-shaped and strongly veined, reaching 2 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide.
Like other basils, ‘Sweet Dani’ needs full sun for compact, strong growth. Water the plants regularly and fertilize every two weeks and after extensive harvests. Leaves may be harvested regularly, even from young plants, to encourage branching and maximum regrowth and to discourage flower formation.
Sprinkle leaves or flowers in salads, steep them in hot water for a tea, or add them to dishes that call for basil or lemon, such as fish and chicken. Add basil at the end of the cooking period to retain as much flavor as possible.
All-America Selections is a nonprofit organization that tests and introduces new flower and vegetable varieties, evaluating their performance in trials across North America. ‘Sweet Dani’ was selected as a winner in the vegetable category, along with ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard.
‘Sweet Dani’ is the fourth basil to win in the sixty-five-year history of the program. ‘Siam Queen’, a beautiful Thai basil, was a winner last year, ‘Purple Ruffles’ in 1987, and ‘Dark Opal’ in 1962.
Tom DeBaggio raises herbs in Arlington, Virginia. His most recent book, written with Susan Belsinger, is Basil: An Herb Lover’s Guide (Interweave, 1996).