Number 38    September - October 2004

(Ocimum basilicum)

By Bea and Bill Jennings

Basil is known as the tomato?s best friend. The marriage of the mortar and pestle with basil, pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil yields wonderful and pungent pesto sauces. Basil provides savory subtleties to Italian and American cuisine. As much as basil is used and beloved today, it has a rather interesting and contradictory history.

Basil is of the genus Ocimum which is Greek for ?aromatic herb.? Basilicum (or Basilikon phuton) was thought to mean royal, or kingly, herb. However, the word Basilicum was also thought to mean the mythical king of serpents the basilisk.

The Roman author Pliny described the basilisk as a snake with white spots on its head in the pattern of a crown. Medieval writers associated the basilisk with the creature that left death and destruction in its wake - the Victorians therefore associated basil with hatred.

Like the Victorians, ancient Greeks thought basil represented hate and misfortune. To their minds they pictured poverty as a ragged woman with basil at her side. They thought basil would not grow unless it was scolded and abused it while sown.

The Romans also believed the more they abused basil when sown the better it would prosper. On the other hand, the Romans believed the smell of basil inspired love. Thus a woman seeking true love needed merely to hand the object of her affections a sprig of basil and he would be hers forever. Likewise, a pot of basil on a Roman woman?s balcony was a sign that her lover should scale the wall with dispatch.

Basil, it has been said, was found growing around Christ?s tomb after his resurrection. Some Greek Orthodox churches today use basil to prepare holy water. In addition, pots of basil are set below altars of some churches.

In Africa and Asia the Holy Basil, Ocimum sanctum, is held in reverence as a plant imbued with the divine essence. It is the sacred plant of Krishna and Vishnu. It is planted around Hindu temples to discourage mosquitoes and as a disinfectant for malaria. Some Indians go to sleep at night with a basil leaf on their breast. Upon death, ?every good Hindu goes to their rest with a basil leaf on their breast. This is their passport to Paradise.? The Holy Basil is also used to swear oaths in court.

Basil leaves have been used in Europe from Roman times, strewn on floors to eliminate offensive smells and made into incense and perfumes. The herb was also used to sooth insect bites of mosquitoes, wasps, etc.

In Haiti, basil belongs to the pagan love goddess Erzulie, who is thought of as a powerful protector. In rural Mexico, basil is sometimes carried in pockets to magnetize money or to recapture a lover?s roving eye.

The genus Ocimum includes about 64 species. Cultivars of basil may smell of anise, camphor, cinnamon, clove, eucalyptus, carnation, lemon, thyme, and other scents. When using basil, leaves should always be torn, not cut. Basil used for cooking should not be allowed to flower in order to retain its full flavor.

Sweet Basil, Ocimum basilicum, is the basil found in most kitchens. This is the basil of Genoa, Italy and is called by the local name Genovese. This basil combines well with garlic.

Lemon Basil, Ocimum citriodorum, originated in Indonesia, it is a delightful addition to sauces and a perfect flavoring for chicken.

?Anise?, Ocimum basilicum, is milder than sweet basil and has a sweet anise flavor. Known as French basil it is used in place of sweet basil for its lovely anise flavor.

?Purple Ruffles?, Ocimum basilicum, is a dark red-purple flavorful garnish that can be used like sweet basil. This basil is also great in pestos, vinegars, and salads.

?Purpurascens?, Ocimum basilicum, is an All-American medal winning variety that was developed in 1962 by the University of Connecticut. The strongly scented dark purple-red leaves with medium flavor are terrific in rice dishes, pesto, vinegars, garnishes, and salads.

?Morpha?, Ocimum basilicum, is scented like a blend of spices and used in Malaysian and Indian dishes.

Lettuce Leaf Basil, Ocimum basilicum var. Crispum, this basil?s large, succulent leaves with strong, spicy, scent are good with garlic, tomatoes, peppers, fish, eggs, and chicken.

?Cinnamon?, Ocimum basilicum, makes an interesting addition to potpourri and is also used in spicy dishes and salad dressings.

In Victorian handbooks on the language of flowers, basil symbolizes the sender?s need for the recipient?s good wishes. In ancient Greek and Roman context basil symbolizes hatred. Given these divergent viewpoints, the 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper enigmatically states, ?As it helps the deficiency of Venus in one kind, so it spoils all her action in another. I dare write no more of it?, he mysteriously concludes.

Bea and Bill Jennings, Co-Chairs of the Herb Garden Docent organization



Celebrate Basil with the annual Herb Garden, Pesto Festo, Wednesday and Thursday, October 27 & 28.   Wednesday is for harvesting Basil from the Herb Garden and Thursday bring in your prepared Pesto and your recipe on a 3 X 5 card and participate in the taste testing.


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