Everything you ever wanted to know about the basil plant. We cover history, varieties, growing, pruning, harvesting, preserving, cooking tips, and more!
Table of Contents
Facts About Basil
Basil is a tender perennial grown most often as an annual. Native to tropical Asia, it is now grown just about anywhere where the weather is warm enough.
Basil is a member of the mint family. If you crush a few leaves between your fingers you can smell the minty, anise flavor that accompanies fresh basil.
There are over 60 varieties of basil. Some of the more popular Basil varieties include sweet, bush, purple, Italian, lemon, and lime. Cultivars vary in leaf size, color and flavor.
Basil grows very easily from seed. The ideal location to grow basil is in a sheltered, sunny spot outdoors.
In cooler climates, basil can be grown in a greenhouse or hoop house. Compact varieties of basil can be grown indoors or in container gardens.
Basil grows best in light, well-drained fertile soil.
When planting basil from seed, sow undercover in the late spring and early summer at 55F (13C). Apply a medium-fertility soil improver before planting out.
When young basil has three sets of true leaves, pinch off the tips to encourage bushy growth. Continue pinching your basil after each new branch has more than two sets of leaves until it is nice and full. While this may seem to delay growth, it will create a much healthier plant.
Remove flowers to promote leaf production and lengthen the life of your plant. Once the basil plant has started to flower and go to seed, the leaves will be less tender and will eventually turn bitter.
Where to Buy Basil Plants and Seeds
Basil is one of the most popular culinary herbs and can be found at almost all garden retailers, farm stands, or home improvement centers.
Seed packets cost about $2-$4 each and can last a few years if they are stored properly. A great source for high-quality basil seeds is Botanical Interests.
Basil plants can also be ordered online in early spring. Burpee, one of the most trusted online retailers specializing in edible seeds & plants offers over 20 varieties of basil.
You can also find small basil plants in the supermarket as well. These plants are typically meant to be used immediately since you will find a few dozen plants all growing in a tiny bit of soil.
If you want to make your plants last even longer, see our article on prolonging the life of grocery store basil.
Cooking with Basil Leaves
Basil has a complex sweet, spicy aroma with notes of mint, anise, and cloves. The flavor is warm and peppery with hints of mint and anise. If you are unfamiliar with the taste of anise, it is a bit sweet with black licorice undertones.
Basil leaves are widely used as a culinary herb in both fresh and dry forms. Many cuisines and cultures use the basil leaves in sauces, soups, and salads.
Basil is a very versatile herb. While basil leaves are most often used in cooking, you can also add flower buds as a garnish or in salads.
Basil is excellent in tomato-based dishes, with spinach and all types of squash. It is great in soups, but don’t add it until the last thirty minutes of cooking.
It can also be used in cream cheese for sandwiches, dips, and pasta dishes. Basil is the main ingredient in pesto. This herb is very important in Italian, Thai, Laotian, and Vietnamese cuisines.
Sweet Basil, which is often called Genoese basil, has large bright green leaves. It is the best basil for pesto and combines nicely with tomatoes and garlic.
See this article for more recipes and tips for cooking with basil.
The best time to harvest fresh herbs is first thing in the morning before the heat has set in.
Basil is one of those herbs that benefit from frequent harvests. The more you take, the more the plant produces so the rule of thumb is to harvest early and often.
The newer leaves will be the most tender, so keep this in mind during harvest. If you are using fresh basil in a recipe, try clipping the younger leaves first. It is better to cut the tops off the full plant, rather than cutting full stalks from just a section of your plant.
Don’t let your basil grow too tall when it is young, keep trimming the longer stems to encourage your basil to grow out instead of up.
To prune your basil plant, follow a stem down to a leaf node where you see two sets of leaves on either side of the stem. Cut the basil right above the leaves. Your plant will sprout two new stems at each leaf section.
Enjoy this beautiful video where Juaquin Lawrence Hershman shows the children the proper way to harvest basil. A simple and very accurate way to prune basil plants to stay bushy.
How To Store Fresh Basil
There are several ways to store fresh basil.
- Oil. You can preserve fresh basil leaves by placing them in an airtight container, layer them lightly with salt and cover them with olive oil. If placed in the refrigerator, the leaves will blacken, but the oil will be infused with a lovely basil flavor that is excellent in cooking.
- Water. If you have a few inches of stem, you can store them in water very similar to cut flowers. Cut the very tips of the stem and remove any lower leaves. Fill a tall glass of water with room temperature water and set the basil stems in the glass. Kept in an even temperature room, the stems should sprout roots and can stay fresh for a few weeks.
- Mason Jars. Fresh leaves can be preserved for up to a week on the counter. Place a damp paper towel in the bottom of a mason jar or other airtight container. Add the leaves, seal the container and keep them on the counter at even temperatures.
One of the most popular ways to store basil is to freeze it in ice cube trays.
- Chop or puree the basil with a little water or olive oil
- Pour into ice cube trays or small Tupperware containers
- Freeze and place into freezer baggies or seal the container.
Basil frozen using this method will stay fresh for up to three months. Freezing basil is the preferred method of storing fresh basil when basil is the primary ingredient in a dish like a pesto.
While freezing is often preferred by chefs, drying basil allows you to extend the life of the herb. Dried basil can be stored up to a year.
How to dry basil
- Bundle fresh leaves and tie with a rubber band or cut full stems for drying
- Hang the herbs upside down in a well-ventilated place and allow to dry for about a week depending on the level of humidity.
- Avoid direct sunlight or overly hot conditions or the herbs will lose many of the oils that give them the best flavor.
- Once fully dry, crumble the leaves removing the stems and store in a tightly sealed container.
Basil Health Benefits
Less commonly known uses for basil are its role in medicine. 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.
In ancient times, basil was used as an antidote for poison. It is also 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. Hindus used basil infused with lemon to ease the symptoms of diabetes. Basil is one of the most diverse and widely used herbs.
Fun Recipe: Basil Walnut Vinegar Dressing
Not sure what to do with all flowers late in the season? An easy recipe is to use the flowers to flavor salad and vegetable dressings.
- 1 t Chopped Garlic
- 1/2 cup Basil flowers (or leaves)
- 2 tsp.Dijon Mustard
- 1/2 tsp. Salt
- 1/2 tsp. Pepper
- 1/4 cup Red Wine Vinegar
- 3/4 cup Olive Oil
- 1/2 cup finely chopped walnut pieces
- Finely chop the basil flowers and leaves with the garlic or mash with a mortar and pestle
- Blend in mustard
- Whisk together the remaining ingredients
- Allow the mixture to sit for at least 30 minutes for the flavors to blend.
This recipe is nice over red-skinned potatoes, steamed vegetables, or as a salad dressing.