Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Plant Profile: Basil

By Nina Berryman

Basil is one of my favorite crops to harvest. Not only is the aroma amazing, but the cutting in itself is an art. Where you make a cut drastically affects the shape of the plant as it continues to grow. Much like pruning trees or bushes, cutting stalks of basil is a way of directing the energy of the plant in different directions. Always cut your basil just above a junction where a branch meets the stem. This way, when the plant sends energy up its stem and it dead-ends because of a cut, it can then use that energy in the existing branch that is right there. This will encourage the basil plant to get bushier, and produce more leaves, which are the desired part of the plant for cooking. If you cut your basil in mid-stem, the plant’s energy will be wasted moving nutrients and water to a place where it cannot be used.

Basil, Ocimum basilicum, is in the Lamiaceae family, also known as the Labiatae family. The name Labiatae comes from the Latin word for lip. If you look at a flower in this family you will see why. The flowers have irregularly shaped petals that are fused together in an upper lip and a lower lip. Mint, rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, and lavender are all in the same family.

There are two possible roots for the name basil. One is from the Greek “basileus,” meaning “king.” The other is that is from the Latin “basilicas,” meaning “dragon.” Basil is very sensitive to the cold. If we store it in our walk-in refrigerator with all the other vegetables, its leaves will turn brown. The best way to store your basil is in a glass of water in a cool place- but not too cool!
Basil has much cultural significance. In present day Italy it is a symbol of love, while in ancient Greece it was a symbol of hatred. An African legend says it will protect against scorpions. Some say it was found around Christ’s tomb after his resurrection. In India it was placed in the mouth of the dying to ensure a safe journey to God.

Sources: Seed to Seed, Suzanne Ashworth

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