There are few more inspiring herbs than basil and I cannot think of any dish that is not improved by using it. A favorite with tomato and Italian dishes, it actually originated in India and is widely used around the world for its wonderful culinary uses. It has many medicinal properties also and can be found as a supplement to help treat stress, and in essential oil form. A very tender annual, basil might be a bit of a challenge to grow for northern gardeners, but I can promise you it is worth it.

Health benefits of basil

Antioxidant activity

Basil is high in antioxidants[1], which means it helps to slow down and prevent damage from free radicals on our system. Using basil essential oil can help to provide antioxidants which can slow down disease processes along with fighting signs of aging.

Can reduce anxiety

Anxiety can reduce our quality of life and finding ways to manage stress and reduce anxiety can increase our happiness and fulfillment in our daily lives. Studies of using basil essential oils[2], even when compared to pharmaceutical anxiety medication, showed positive effects in reducing anxiety. Incredibly, there are 38 active compounds in basil essential oil, certainly worth further investigation.

Anti-inflammatory activity

Inflammation can cause skin irritation, rashes, redness and is often an immune system defense mechanism showing our body is trying to heal itself from an allergic reaction, infection, or other kind of wound. Similarly, inflammation in our airway can cause respiratory issues that can be more life threatening such as asthma and bronchospasm. Studies of using basil extracts, and basil essential oil show therapeutic effects on inflammatory conditions such as asthma and other diseases resulting in skin and respiratory tract inflammation.[3]

Aids the fight against obesity and diabetes

Extracts of leaves and flowers of basil have shown positive effects[4] against the enzymes believed to be responsible for some of the challenges with obesity and diabetes. Diabetes and obesity are metabolic and degenerative disorders which are a major contributor to death, and in addition, can lead to many potential problems affecting the heart, kidneys, vision, and overall quality of life.

Basil growing

The different kinds of basil

There are many kinds of basil, all derived from the main genus of the plant, Ocimum. Holy basil, a perennial form of basil is also known as Ocimum sanctum or Ocimum tenuiflorum and is revered in herbal medicine circles as a stress reducer. It is called tulsi in Ayurveda medicine and used in religious and traditional medicines throughout Asia. More common for its culinary uses, Ocimum basilicum also shows many healthful benefits and is known as the “King of Herbs”. Basilicum, in fact, is the Greek translation of “king”. Most of the basil I have grown and are familiar with are cultivars of this Ocimum basilicum, including Sweet Basil, Lettuce-Leaf Basil, Purple Ruffles Basil, and my new favorite, Genovese Basil. There are many other varieties including Ocimum Americanum or Lemon Basil and Ocimum minimum or Bush Basil, to name just a couple. There are somewhere between 35 and 150 varieties of basil worldwide. They easily crossbreed so their cultivars and varieties can be hard to keep track of.

Growing basil

Growing culinary basil or cultivars of Ocimum basilicum is so rewarding because the vibrant plant is luscious and delicious. For the first time this year, I tried a new variety. Well, new to me. Genovese basil was recommended by a friend who, during a conversation about basil and our spring garden plans many months ago, casually said, “If you’re not growing Genovese basil, you might as well not even bother.” Having grown basil for years, from anyone else I might have been offended, but as this friend always knew what she was talking about and is very generous with her knowledge, I listened and I was not disappointed. The flavor beat out any basil I had grown before, having had many great harvests of sweet basil and lettuce leaf basil. Like lettuce leaf basil, Genovese is simply a cultivar of sweet basil originating from Genoa Italy with a stronger, spicier flavor.

As a tender annual, you can’t go wrong by trying different kinds of basil, either plants from the nursery or starting your own from seed. There are a few things to keep in mind.

  1. A tender annual, basil will not tolerate frost. Temperatures between 72⁰ and 84⁰ will help your basil thrive.
  2. Excellent drainage is an absolute must as basil doesn’t like wet roots. Somehow, drier, and hotter growing conditions can result in spicier, stronger flavored basil plants.
  3. Prune, prune, and prune. Keeping your basil from forming flowers and seeds by pinching back its main stems weekly, it will continue to give you its delicious leaves, doubling leaf production each time you trim the center stems. I am guilty of letting basil form flowers, and that tells the plant it has done its job, make seeds, and it will begin to die, making only small leaves that turn yellow early.

Harvesting basil

Hinting at this a moment ago, pruning equals harvesting. Trimming basil stems is the best way to harvest basil and the more you harvest, the more basil you will have. You can use the basil straight away or store it for future use.

Storing basil

As basil is packed full of volatile oils, it freezes quite well. I take the leaves off the stems I trimmed, or if I’m super busy, I take the whole stem, and put them in airtight freezer containers such as Ziplock bags or silicone-sealed glass containers and the leaves stay reasonably delicious for tossing on soups or making into pesto at a later time. Since basil season is relatively short where I live this way, I can use basil year-round. For large harvests, I might pulverize the basil in a food processor and freeze in ice cube trays which I then pop into freezer containers and anytime I’m making something that would like an extra basil flare, I can pop an ice-cube sized basil bomb or two into the dish. Of course, basil can also be dried.

Using basil

The ideas for using basil have as many variations as found in the plant themselves. You can infuse fresh basil in extra virgin olive oil, and again you have something with almost limitless uses, from a salad dressing ingredient to a drizzle on your favorite tomato soup. The list of foods basil compliments or is complimented by is very wide, from meat, poultry, fish, and egg dishes all the way to interesting fruity dessert or drink ideas. You certainly never have to worry about growing too much basil.

Conclusion

Allow yourself to be inspired by this healthful “King of Herbs” by adding it to your culinary tool chest and reap the antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, stress- and obesity-reducing benefits.

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