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Garden Guru: 'King of the herbs' brings bountiful variety

By John Porter

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For a long time, it seems that I have used my garden column as a sounding board for the doom-and-gloom effects of horrible weather in the garden. Well, it's time for something completely different. Today, I'm going to write about what is doing well in my garden this year, maybe even too well.

I love basil. I love the fragrance, and I love the flavor. Luckily, my plants are performing beautifully this year. Combine that with the fact that I planted way too many plants, and it is a basil bonanza in my garden.

Basil is not only versatile when it comes to dishes it can flavor, but also in flavor itself; there's sweet basil, spicy basil, lemon basil, lime basil, cinnamon basil, Thai basil and on and on (and those are just the ones I have in my garden).

Basil (Ocimum basilicum), which is also called sweet basil, is an annual member of the mint family. It is known to Americans as a feature in Italian cuisines, but it was originally cultivated in India more than 5,000 years ago and is featured in many cuisines of Southeast Asia.

Sweet basil, Thai basil and many of the others are simply cultivars or varieties of O. basilicum, but the lemon and lime basils are actually a different species -- O. americanum. The name "basil" comes from the Greek word "basileus," meaning "king," referring to their placement of the tasty plant as "king of the herbs."

Basil is pretty easy to grow, even for novice gardeners. It is simple to start from seeds directly in the garden or indoors, or transplants can be purchased. It prefers a sunny location with at least six hours of bright light, and does well when the soil is well drained. The flavor will be best when fertilizer is used sparingly, because slower growth means more time for flavor components to develop.

Basil flavor has a complex chemical makeup, with compounds that also give flavor/aromas to geraniums and roses, coriander, bay leaf, pine trees, bergamot, camphor and anise (licorice). Continual harvesting would have the same effect as pruning, making the plant grow faster and "bush out" more, so don't be afraid to harvest.

Once the blooms form, pinch them out to keep the plant from becoming woody and to reduce its growth. You can let it go to seed in the fall to collect seed for the following year. Bees also like the flowers.

If you want a continuous supply of basil, plant a few plants every few weeks. It is not too late to start basil for the fall. Given enough light in a sunny window, basil can be grown indoors in the winter, though not as happily as in the garden.

There are a few ways to preserve basil. First, never put fresh basil in the refrigerator. Storage below 50 degrees turns the basil black. Put whole stems in a glass of water, as you would with cut flowers, and keep it on the kitchen counter.

If you are a fan of pesto, you can make large batches and freeze it. You can freeze pesto in airtight containers, canning jars or even make pesto ice cubes. To keep it from turning dark, reserve some of the oil from the recipe and cover the top with oil to keep air away from the tender green leaves.

You can also tie up bunches of basil and hang them to dry in a well-ventilated area or freeze basil by itself. Whole leaves can be frozen in water or chopped basil in oil and freeze in ice cube trays. Basil will last up to six months in the freezer. Fresh basil can be added to tomato sauces and canned. Remember: Dried herbs are much stronger than fresh, and it won't take as much to flavor your dish.

One surprising way to use basil is with fruit. While the idea may have you scratching your head or even shaking your head in disgust, those flavor compounds that I mentioned earlier match well with the flavor compounds found in fruit. I've seen recipes for basil fruit sorbets, salads and more. Asian cultures use basil seeds in fruity sweet drinks.

Wet basil seeds become surrounded with a gelatinous coating and resemble, to me, frog eggs. While I appreciate the concept of a basil-seed drink, the look and feel of drinking frog eggs are less than appealing.

One of my preferred pairings is basil and peaches, because they are in season at the same time. I'll share my recipe for a sweet basil cream to drizzle over fresh, roasted or grilled summer peaches or your favorite fruit.

Honey Basil Cream Yogurt Sauce

     1    cup plain yogurt

     1/4  cup honey

     1     tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

     8     large basil leaves

PROCESS in a food processor until smooth. Adjust sweetness as preferred. If a thinner sauce is preferred, add milk until desired consistency is reached.

John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at john.porter@mail.wvu.edu or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVgardenguru.


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