BASIL: UNE HERB ROYALE
The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (3/15/08)
Basil, as the French would say, is une herbe royale, as well it might be, the word basil deriving from the Greek basileus, meaning king. Grown throughout the world, basil is native to India and other tropical regions of Asia on Rudyard Kipling's "On the Road to Mandalay", having been grown there for over 5,000 years. Widely used in various cuisines, Italian, French, Thai, Vietnamese, and Laotian, it's the king of the herbs.
As with tender emotions and fine crystal, basil is fragile and of surpassing value, a “many-splendoured” herb, as Francis Thompson might’ve said, “clinging Heaven by the hems.” The varieties of basil delight a chef’s imagination. Beginning with the familiar sweet basil, the list includes other sweet basils, Genovese, Large-leaf, and Mammoth and the purple basils, Dark Opal, Purple Ruffles, and Red Rubin.
And this is only the beginning because the land of the basil stretches beyond where the eye can see to where the spirit can fly, to exotic climes of singular cuisines. Indeed, “The sun never sets on the Basil Empire,” save for the frosty north where it thrives on window sills, in greenhouses, and on brief summer flings.
Basil is low and tender, a perennial in warm, tropical climates, but in Flagstaff’s cold, wind, and sere, an annual, comfortable outside only in the summer. Best started indoors from seed in mid-spring on a south-facing window sill or purchased from a commercial nursery, the seedlings should only be set outdoors when all danger of frost has past about June 15 or with walls of water and the plant has four true leaves.
Before it’s transplanted it's best to harden it gradually by placing the seedlings out of doors several times on warm days. Basil should be given plenty of time to develop into a vigorous plant before transplanting outside.
Also, it can be grown indoors on south facing window sills year round, using potting soil with some perlite added. Starting them from seed or bringing some plants indoors in the autumn, the enjoyment of basil can last all year. As a matter of fact, basil plants are quite lovely, and since there are a variety of colors, the sills can be "many-coloured,” as well as aromatic. The fact is that basil adds class as well as taste.
As with many herbs, basil is a quadruple threat, aromatic, culinary, attractive, and medicinal. Its essential oil offers anti-oxidant properties, is anti-bacterial, and as a gargle soothes sore throats.
The soil in an herb garden shouldn’t be rocky nor clay bound, as is much of Flagstaff’s dirt, but deeply tilled with plenty of vintage organic matter, such as compost. Some basil enthusiasts add perlite to the soil to lighten it.
Since the value of basil is in its leaves, not its blossoms, the fertilizer should be high in nitrogen and low in phosphorus; however, basil is not a heavy feeder so fertilizer should be used penuriously. Fish emulsion, blood meal, and soy bean meal are excellent organic fertilizers. If addicted to commercially synthetic fertilizers, choose one of the “slow-acting,” releasing nutrients slowly. As with many high maintenance élégantes, basil’s diet bears watching.
Once plants are established, it’s best to pinch off the top to encourage a bushier plant. Frequently harvesting the outer leaves will prolong the plant’s life. Basil leaves have the best flavor just before the plant flowers, and better yet, flowering can be delayed by pinching or clipping off new flower buds, a little nip and tuck for basil prolongs its youth.
Basil should be planted smack dab in the middle of an herb garden where the soil is moist, the plant protected, and the leaves are easy to reach. A rock garden is especially desirable for basil because rocks, especially malapais, volcanic rocks with the little holes, absorb heat and water during the day to release during the evening hours.
An herb garden is well-served by the "many-splendoured" varieties of basil, adding culinary as well as aromatic delights. Geoffrey Chaucer said it well: "Out of ev'ry seed springeth the herbe so that ev'ry wight (creature)" "waxeth glad and light."
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008