A reader asks, we tell: Is there such a thing as chocolate basil?
Does chocolate basil exist? The short answer is no. Getting to the root of the story is another thing entirely. A few years ago, rumors began circulating about a fantastic new basil with the fragrance of chocolate; the chatter on Internet herb forums went wild. I was intrigued, but could not find anyone with the actual plant. And then last year, Allison from The Herb Companion called me with Robin Brann’s question about chocolate basil.
"I am looking for chocolate basil. Do you know of it?"
To get the bottom of the story, we must go back a few years. I first noticed a flurry of posts about four seasons ago, like this one on the iVillage GardenWeb garden forum from 2006:
“Two years ago (2004) during the Japanese Festival, my wife and I saw an interesting brown basil in the Kemper Gardens in St. Louis. It had a sign, ‘Chocolate Basil.’ When we knelt to smell its fragrance, lo and behold, it smelled like a blend of chocolate and basil. Another sign stated we could find where to obtain any vegetable or herb seeds in the Kemper Gardens by asking inside the office. When we inquired, no one could direct us to a source.”
Another posting said the St. Louis Herb Society had offered chocolate basil plants at its annual plant sale at the Missouri Botanical Garden and quickly sold out. But when staffers at the Kemper office were contacted, they could find no record of a chocolate basil having been grown in their gardens.
Rose Marie Nichols McGee, owner of Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Oregon, and I tried to order a flat of the chocolate basil plants at that very St. Louis Herb Society plant sale. The Herb Society was unable to obtain the flat, and when friends contacted the nursery that supplies plants to the Herb Society, they were told there was a total crop failure and they had none, not even a stock plant.
Accounts of the plant turned up (and still do occasionally) on the forums at Dave’s Garden ( www.davesgarden.com ), as well. In 2004, they posted a response from a (now-unidentifiable) staff member at the Missouri Botanical Garden who had researched the query heavily: The response concluded that someone had mistaken chocolate mint for chocolate basil.
When The Herb Companion recently contacted Chip Tynan, manager of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Horticultural Answer Service, he was unfamiliar with the unofficial 2004 response to Dave’s Garden, but confirmed that their botanical gardens had no record of the chocolate basil. “Perhaps someone saw a dark basil and was confused?” Tynan says. “Chocolate plants are in vogue right now, but I’ve never tasted or smelled basil that would make me think ‘chocolate.’”
I contacted Gene Gage, then owner of Papa Geno’s Herb Farm in Nebraska: Did he carry the mystery basil? He did not, but had tracked the plant to a plant sale in Kansas City. The chocolate basil was purported to have come from Spring Valley Nursery near Louisburg, Kansas.
An Herb Companion staffer contacted Spring Valley Nursery, but they did not have the plant. Ken O’Dell of Spring Valley Nursery suggested Alan Branhagen at Powell Gardens in Kansas City, Missouri, might be able to find it. When an Herb Companion staffer spoke to Alan, he said he had heard of it, but he did not have the mystery plant, either.
After years of wondering and prodded by the reader question, I finally turned to Art Tucker, Ph.D., plant expert extraordinaire at Delaware State University, for his take on the ongoing mystery.
Art Tucker, Ph.D., responds: “There is certainly a lot of chatter on the web about the chocolate basil ever since somebody said on a blog that they saw it at the Missouri Botanical Garden in 2004. Now, understand, the Missouri Botanical Garden, like all American botanic gardens, keeps meticulous records of the sources of their plants, and I am asked (by the poster on the forum) to believe that they are unsure? I don’t believe it!”
Tucker did, however, smell green pepper pyrazines in another basil, Ocimum selloi. “Pyrazines are normally present in not only green pepper but also chocolate, coffee, etc. and give those particularly biting, pungent odors,” he says.
When he analyzed the oil, he found no pyrazines, but was not surprised because these intense flavorants are easily lost in the process of distillation. “If O. selloi has pyrazines, it is not above Mother Nature to switch her chemistry ever so slightly to go from green pepper pyrazines to chocolate pyrazines,” he says.
Tucker concludes, “I think it’s perfectly plausible that there might be a chocolate basil out there somewhere in nature, but it sure doesn’t seem to be present in the North American herb trade in 2004 to 2009.”
So there we are. If the plant existed commercially, it would turn up at plant sales and we could track down a start. Of course, if you have the elusive chocolate basil, write to email@example.com .
Jim Long writes and gardens in the Ozark Mountains. Happy gardening!
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